In the history of parenting, there might be nothing more dreaded than The Sex Talk. Masturbation, nocturnal emissions, menstrual cycles, how to use condoms—nobody wants an awkward lecture on these topics. I remember once joking with my mum about douching after seeing a commercial on television. She then took on a super serious tone and started to explain vaginal hygiene. I am not sure I’ve yet to recover.
At the same time, despite access to a plethora of internet resources and improved education in the classroom, kids do need their parents to step in to fill in the gaps. But how do you go about it with feeling like you’re busting into a private life without an invitation? And how do you cover the always-changing environment in which teens are living?
Maybe it’s time to retire the old, let-me-sit-you-down kind of sex talk in favour of something more palatable—and more effective. I suggest micro conversations numbering in the hundreds across years of young adulthood.
How to you engage in a micro chat? Simple. You look for moments in your everyday communication with your children to bring up important sex-related topics. You might use current events, community happenings, social media, television and books to ask questions and spark discussions.
The approach keeps your kids informed without having the stress of a single face-to-face onslaught of facts. Here are four ways to use micro conversations to broach the tough topics related to sex.
If you see something, say something
The other day, I was walking with my 12-year-old son into Costco. I see a girl with a hickey on her neck. So, I say, “Hey, Em, do you see the red spot on the girl’s neck? Do you know what that is?” He had no idea. I explained how people can make hickeys. When he asked why someone would do that, it opened up the conversation about young relationships.
Another time, I was watching a reality program with my daughter. There was a boyfriend who was becoming controlling with increasing levels of anger and even some violence. I asked her if she would be concerned if her partner acted like the boyfriend on the show. We both expressed concerns for the girl in the relationship, and then discussed intimate partner abuse.
Read what teenagers are reading
Young adult novels are not just for kids. In addition to helping parents know what is really going on in the private lives of teens, these books are windows of opportunity to talk about dating, sex, rape, consent, sexual identity, sexting and more.
When I read Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight, I was shocked and distraught about everything I was reading. Surely, this type of teen life is exaggerated. Turns out my daughter wasn’t shocked. Why? Because she had already seen glimpses of suicide, hazing and same-sex attraction.
Reading that book allowed me to talk about those issues in a very real but not uncomfortable way.
Use the news
Every day there’s a story that can be discussed over dinner. Talk about the Brock Turner verdict and the latest #MeToo story. Mention the controversy of transgender athletes competing in high school and start a discussion about all of the potential concerns on both sides.
Let that lead into the transitioning process, hormones, what makes someone a man or woman, and on and on. Bring up a recent study showing sexting with teens is on the rise. There’s an endless stream of topics. Just google “teen” and the subject of your choice.
Documentary movie night helps when experience fails
I regularly subject my kids to watching real stories about real people. Sure, they’d rather watch America’s Got Talent. But they sit through these movies and then the conversations begin and flow for days.
My daughter and I watched Audrie & Daisy, a film about date rape in high school. We were able not only to discuss how and when sexual assault can happen but also the effects of drinking, drugs and cyberbullying.
Starting a sex-related conversation with children at any age isn’t easy, even in micro doses. If it doesn’t go well at first, no worries. Just try again another time. Keep at it.
Eventually it does become easier as teens become accustomed to talking about a wide range of issues. Then in the future when your child is faced with sexting, drugs, sexual assault or relationship issues, they’ll know you can be approached for help.