Research has demonstrated that sexual communication between parents and adolescents is instrumental in improving adolescent sexual well-being (Astle et al., 2022; Widman et al., 2016). For parents, it can be a precarious situation. As Gagnon stated, “Adults are caught in an impossible situation. On the one hand, it is important that children should not do anything sexual before they are supposed to; on the other hand, adults should play some positive role in developing children’s sexuality” (1977:79, italics in original).
If parents do not take an active role in their children’s sexual development and socialization by talking to them about sex, their children have other options to go to for information, and not all of those options are beneficial. Participants in a study focused on sexual self-development (Wahl, 2020) reported sources of sexual knowledge other than parents. These sources included:
- Friends — who were noted as being just as ignorant in matters of sexuality as they were
- Sex education in school — which was not comprehensive and focused on STIs and abstinence
- Books and magazines
- The internet (non-pornography)
- Online porn — which often provides an unrealistic view of sexual behavior
- Porn (non-internet-based)
- The media
- Trial and error — which placed in sexual situations that were physically and mentally unhealthy
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels
It is not a question of whether parents should take an active role in their children’s sexual development—it is necessary. The bigger question (and one many parents probably have) is exactly what do adolescents want from the sex talk? This is a question posed in recently published research.
Astle, McAllister, Emanuels, Rogers, Toews, and Yazedjian (2022) reported on the parent-child sexual communication in focus groups consisting of 38 college-aged emerging adults. Of this sample, 50 percent of the participants were female. Participants reported that the sexual communication they had with their parents was infrequent and dominated by the parents, with sexual topics not being addressed in an in-depth manner. Topics that were largely brought up in the conversations included the sexual history of the adolescent, birth control, contraception, abstinence/delaying sex, and parental experience. Missing were frank discussions about sexual desires, abortion, masturbation, and sexual satisfaction, as is often the case.
Participants noted that the sexual communication took several forms, which included:
- Closed communication — The most common form of communication reported involves infrequent, often brief communication that allows for little involvement from the young person and does not present information that is helpful.
- Open communication — The least common form of communication involves a reciprocal discussion.
- Absent communication — Described by participants as communication where nothing is learned.
- Awkward communication — Awkwardness was cited as a reason why adolescents did not want to participate in parent-child sexual communication.
- Use of scare tactics — The use of fear to detour children from sexual behaviors and select sexual values.
Participants in the study by Astle et al. (2022) offered suggestions for improvement in parent-child sexual communication. First and foremost, they noted that they wanted their parents to have been more open and supportive in the conversation, regardless of their sexual history or decisions. Respondents in the focus groups also acknowledged that they felt more comfortable talking to parents of the same sex. Boys talking with their fathers and girls talking with their mothers may be instrumental in avoiding awkward communication.
Female participants in the study had a higher appreciation for their parents’ personal experiences being included in the conversation. They noted that hearing and learning from those past experiences aided in their own sexual decision-making process. Next, scare tactics were deemed to be ineffectual. Not only are scare tactics inadequate, but they can also serve to derail reciprocal dialogue and diminish the level of trust essential to the sexual conversation.
And finally, participants discussed that they wished the parent-child sexual communication had taken place earlier in their adolescence. They suggested that a good rule of thumb for the conversation to begin would be at middle school age when the sexual environment is beginning to expand exponentially for young people.
Talking about sex with your children in an open, trusting, and supportive environment increases their focus on sexual health, provides for mindful and informed sexual decision-making, and aids in the prevention of risky sexual behavior. It may not be a welcome or comfortable conversation, but when the discussion is truly reciprocal and takes into account the needs of the adolescent, more responsible and favorable sexual outcomes are generated and sustained.