When Parents and Teens Can’t Talk About Sex

After reading last week’s post of On the Front Lines, a colleague asked me a couple of really good, pointed questions.

Wasn’t I putting a lot of pressure on parents — telling them they had to get comfortable talking about sex with their teens? What about those times when parents and teens just can’t talk about sexuality, for whatever reason?

He raised such good points, I decided they were worthy of further discussion.

My colleague wasn’t saying that parents aren’t important. Everyone at the FPA strongly supports the role of parents as sexuality educators. Lynette Johnson, Director of Prevention Programs for the FPA says it this way — “parents are the primary sexuality educators (for better or worse) of their children, since they continually give their kids messages about sexuality, starting from birth, through their words and actions.”

The plethora of online resources for parents around the topic of sexuality, clearly points to its importance and inherent challenges.  Our own website has several links to resources for parents.

I’d like to share a bit of my parenting story as a way to suggest an important resource for parents and teens that I feel gets overlooked much of the time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the parent of four adult children.

When my kids were growing up, I worked in HIV prevention and, later, family planning. Our family had regular conversations, often around the dinner table, about STD’s, birth control and safer sex. They knew I was knowledgeable on the issues and that I was comfortable talking with teens about such things. I did it all the time in schools and youth-serving organizations. And I have always had close relationships with each of my children.

Did that mean they came to me when they had questions of a personal nature about sex or when they became sexually active? No sirree! They didn’t want to talk with me about their personal sex lives anymore than they wanted to hear about mine. Did this mean my kids suffered from a lack of guidance from a trusted adult? Actually — no.

This is where the people I like to call ‘other mothers’ and ‘other fathers’ came in.

There were those parents of their best friends who formed a close bond with my teens. And that teacher and that aunt who became trusted confidantes for the young adults my children were becoming. I don’t know exactly what they talked about but I do know that each of my kids had at least one other adult — someone I respected and trusted — in whom they could confide about those things they weren’t comfortable discussing with me. My kids and I were incredibly lucky they had such adults in their lives.

I am very much aware that many young people don’t have that kind of support. That’s why I am such a strong believer in the work of family planning.  Our health care providers and specialists are the trusted adults to whom young people turn when they can’t or won’t talk with their parents.

The communication gap between teens and their parents is primarily the place where family planning lives and where we can be most valuable to teens and, by extension, their parents.

Do you have a story to share about “other mothers” and “other fathers” — either from a teen or parent perspective? Have you got a story about how family planning helped you navigate the sexually charged teen years? I’d love to hear your take on this topic.

~ Nancy

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