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If Your Teen Asks About Sex, Does That Mean She's Having It?

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"The Talk" is one of those legendary hallmarks of parenting. Sure, you’ve taught your little ones about body parts through books and song, but sitting down and explaining the actual mechanics of sex and reproduction is something else entirely. Awkward is one word that comes to mind.

While we covered the basics with my daughter at 8 years old, let's cut to a bright, sunny morning eight years later when we were on our way to school.

“Mom, I’m thinking about going on birth control pills.” I didn’t spit out my coffee, but my first reaction was one of bristling fear. I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend. It turns out that she didn’t. She didn’t want to use the pill as a contraceptive; she wanted to clear up her skin.

Yes, my inner eyebrow was dubiously raised, but what she said turned out to be true. And while I didn't get into a discussion with my 16-year-old about when she should or shouldn’t have sex, I realized I should still be prepared.

Margaly Marques, vice president of community education and outreach for Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles, is directly involved in sex education for kids and parents. With parents, they cover more than just anatomical information and reproductive health. They help parents understand that teens really do want to know what their parents think and feel about sexuality.

So how can parents be prepared for these conversations and respond rather than react when they're caught off guard?

“It’s hard to have open communication about sex and sexuality because of the society where we live," Marques says. "There are values and taboos that, even in the 21st century, are still out there when it comes to these issues, especially when it comes to the conversations between parents and their children."

While Marques acknowledges that it’s difficult, she says that taking time to reflect on our own attitudes, values and experiences with sex lay the groundwork for the times we’re taken by surprise.

Rosemarie Mollinedo, a clinical supervisor at the East L.A. Women’s Center who's also a mom, echoed Marques’s emphasis on how much teens really do want to know what parents think and feel about sexuality and other issues. They want to know how parents dealt with these things, she says, and they really are listening, even when it seems they aren’t.

Your child might just be looking for information when she asks about the pill, Mollinedo says. It doesn't necessarily mean she's sexually active.

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If she could go back and do it over again with her kids, Mollinedo says she would “understand that this is a difficult subject to approach and to be prepared for that."

"I’ve talked to a lot of teens and I know more of what to expect," she says, comparing her experience now with when her children first approached her. "I had a lot of expectations for my kids and a lot of expectations on myself, and that interfered with my response. I was reacting, I was thinking, ‘Why are they asking me this? What should I say?’ It wasn’t natural and spontaneous. It probably distanced them from asking questions because mom’s just going to get weird again."

It can be helpful to have some conversation starters or questions in mind when talking with your teen. Here are some recommendations from Marques and Mollinedo:

  1. Talk about current events, movies and TV shows that relate to issues of sex and intimacy. You can say, “What did you think of the main character’s/celebrity’s choice to ________?” This gets conversation going in a general way and leaves the door open for more personal revelations on both sides.
  2. When you do share your observations, opinions or information, you can preface it with something like, “This is what I think…what are your thoughts on that?” While your teen might only be able to summon a mumbled “I don’t know” in the moment, you’ve let him know you want to hear what he thinks.
  3. Take time to reflect back what you’re hearing your teen say—“Let me make sure I’ve understood. You’re saying ________.” Again, this shows your teen that you’re listening. From there you can add in more relevant information or use that as an endnote for the conversation.

“We tend to not focus on the good parts of sexuality and the kids’ initiation and their beginnings," Marques says. "We tend to focus on how awkward it was or how embarrassing or something more dramatic that happened."

MORE: Talking to Teens About Sex

"In many situations, we tend to lump together drugs, violence and sex as similar problems. But sex is not necessarily a problem. In a family where there are two parents in the house, there's sex going on in the house," she adds. "You cannot treat sex the same way as drug abuse or violence.”

When my mind races with news reports of kids hooking up and sexting, I try not to get overwhelmed by the fear and use those stories as conversation starters with my kids. Marques recommends not focusing on just the bad stuff about sex, but to include the good experiences in our conversations, too.

“You start teaching what’s appropriate with your body in a safe way, and it starts when kids are young," she says. "When it’s seen as natural and normal, it’s much easier to talk about.” She also reminds us that having "The Talk" is more than one sit-down discussion—it’s ongoing.

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