SEX: The Topic Nobody Wants to Talk About (But Everybody Should)

For many parents, having “the talk” can be a confusing and uncomfortable situation. But having open and honest conversations with your teen about sex and sexuality can also have a very large influence. This week’s article comes from the Parenthetical archives, originally posted in October 2013, and provides parents with a few tips to get the conversation started.

While my (Jessica’s) mom was tucking me into bed one night, I casually asked her what sex was. I still remember the look of shock on her face (I don’t think she expected her second grade daughter to ask this question!) and her response, “It’s something that happens between two people who love each other very much.” That answer was sufficient for me that evening, but as the years progressed I continued to bring questions to my mom: “How old should someone be before they have sex? What is birth control? Why do people masturbate?” I don’t know if my mom feared these questions, but I do know she always answered honestly and made her values clear.

Parental guidance and support play an integral role in shaping a child’s sexual development. Parents have a tremendous impact on how a child perceives sex and sexuality, yet many adults are hesitant to engage in conversations about sex with their child. This discomfort is understandable. First and foremost, the topic can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for both teens and parents. Parents may also lack the knowledge and confidence to engage in these discussions, particularly if they were not modeled for them growing up. In addition, some parents may believe their teen is too young to talk about sex, while others fear that these conversations will encourage their child to engage in sexual activity. Such fears may get in the way of honest and meaningful conversations.

In order to overcome these barriers and anxieties, it is critical for parents to focus on the known benefits of speaking to their child about sex. Research indicates positive outcomes for young people whose parents talk with them about their sexuality. For example, studies find that youth are much less likely to engage in sexual intercourse if their parents discuss the benefits of delaying sexual activity. Similarly, teens are more likely to use birth control if they’re taught at home about contraceptive use. These positive consequences, however, depend upon the quality and quantity of parent-child communication.

Here are some tips to help you engage in positive, high quality conversations about sex with your teens:

  • Be clear about your values.

Teens are attempting to make sense of the conflicting messages they are receiving about sex from the media, peers, siblings, and adults. They are also trying to identify their own values and beliefs on the topic. By being explicit and sharing your values with your teen, you are providing a filter through which your child can process the other messages they are receiving.

  • Information sharing.

While it is important to share your values, it is equally important that teens are provided with an opportunity to express their beliefs. That’s why this tip is entitled “information sharing,” and not “information giving.” Parent-child conversations about sex should be dialogues, not lectures. Parents should encourage their teen to share their views about relationships and sexuality. If a teen feels their voice and ideas are being respected, they’re much more likely to actually listen to what you’re saying.

  • It’s never too early.

Many parents wrestle with the issue of when to begin having conversations about sex with their teen. Quite likely, you’ve been broaching aspects of this topic with your child from a very early age. For instance, when they were young, they may have asked: “where do babies come from” or “why are mommy bodies different than daddy bodies?” Children continue to ask questions pertaining to sex and sexuality as they develop. And while the topics may seem more difficult the older youth get, these conversations are even more critical at this age; older youth are more likely to be looking for input that will guide their decision-making.

Young adolescents (ages 10 – 13) are particularly interested in seeking factual information. So don’t be concerned by their questions. It does not necessarily mean they are entertaining the idea of sexual activity. Parents have more opportunities to  provide clarity and dispel myths if they start these conversations early with their child.

  • Keep the dialogue going.

Finally, while it’s never too early to start talking to your child about sex, the real key is to keep these conversations going throughout the years. It is important to move away from the misconception that there will be just the one “talk.” Speaking about sex and sexuality should be an ongoing process.

Additional Resources:

We encourage parents of teens to consult these additional resources. They provide more tips on parent-child communication, sexual education resources to bolster your knowledge, and links to teen-lead blogs and websites which offer the youth perspective on these matters.

Advocates for Youth:

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:

Parting Questions:

Do you remember speaking to your parents about sex? What did you appreciate about the conversation or wish they had done differently?

How will you prepare yourself for these conversations?

How will you balance providing facts while also sharing your belief system?


Article by Jessica Collura and Annie Sweers

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 11.08.55 AMJessica Collura is a doctoral student in Civil Society and Community Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on positive youth development and youth-adult relationships. For the past two years, she worked as the Project Evaluator for Goodman Community Center’s MERIT Project.


Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 11.08.32 AMAnnie Sweers has a Masters degree in Educational Policy with a focus in Sexuality Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has been a sexual health educator and facilitator for 5 years. Currently, Annie works at the Goodman Community Center as the MERIT Outreach Coordinator.


Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 9.45.43 AMGoodman Community Center’s Madison Empowering Responsibility in Teens (MERIT) Project, a city-wide initiative funded by the Federal Office of Adolescent Health (OAH, seeks to empower young people to make healthy decisions about their sexual health. MERIT employs a best practice approach to reducing teen pregnancy and incidents of sexually transmitted infections, while increasing safe and responsible choices around sexual activity in teens.

For more information about this project, please visit: