Every parent or caregiver of an adolescent has experienced it: that rare moment when your teen opens up and shares information with you.
But every parent or caregiver also knows that much of the time, talking to a teen can be a bit of a struggle. In fact, parents and caregivers often think that teens don’t listen and what they say doesn’t matter.
Parents and caregivers do matter. What you say does make a difference. Research shows that nearly four in 10 adolescents (38 percent) report that parents most influence their decisions about sex, compared to only 22 percent reporting that friends most influence their decision.1
The first step in having good conversations with your teen is to think, in a quiet moment, how you feel about whatever it is you want to talk about with your teen. It is important to be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with your teen. Then, take advantage of these teachable moments and take some conversation tips from parents who’ve been in your shoes.
Choosing Your Moment
Everyday situations can offer a natural way to ease into a conversation with an adolescent. That can be a lot easier than telling your teen, “We need to talk.” And better received too. Many parents report, for example, that they often talk to their teen when they are driving in their car. Perhaps it's because there is very little eye contact when driving, something a teen may find a bit less nerve-wracking. Maybe it's the fact that the conversation can end, and the radio can be turned back up, offering an easy transition back into less stressful topics.
Remember, your goal is not to deliver a lecture or scare either one of you. Your goal is to have a conversation. And that conversation takes place over time, sometimes in bits and pieces.
Maybe it’s a scene from a movie or TV show. Perhaps it’s a song lyric or a news story. Or it could be something that has happened in the neighborhood. These, or anything else that seems timely, can be effective conversation starters.
A good way to start is simply to ask, “What do you think about that?” And “that” might be:
- A peer or family member learns she is pregnant
- A television show discusses teen relationships
- The news reports on something involving teens
- A popular song on the radio talks about relationships
If your son or daughter answers, “I dunno” or something like that, say, “Well, let me share what I think.” Don’t lecture. Just use it as a jumping-off point to talk about your views and feelings.
You might also ask, “Do you know anybody who has experienced that?”
Adolescents say that they are uncomfortable talking about sex with their parents or caregivers because they worry it will make their parents or caregivers angry, or that their parents or caregivers will assume they are doing some things they might not actually be doing. In other words, teens say they are afraid their parents or caregivers will “freak out.” So that’s the first conversation tip—don’t freak out. You may be freaking out on the inside, but on the outside, try to keep calm.
Keep your composure. Remain calm. Becoming angry or overreacting to a question or mistake can upset your teen, or worse, silence any hope of future dialogue. Instead, listen and ask open-ended questions.
Be present. Parents and caregivers have a lot going on these days. When you have a chance to talk with your teen though, try to put some of those worries and activities aside. Pay attention to the conversation and don’t do too many other things at the same time. You don’t have to drop everything; you can cook or do laundry while you talk. Just be sure to listen and make certain your teen knows you are hearing every word.
Be sympathetic. Let your teen know you understand how challenging life as an adolescent can be. Your teen may not believe you can really relate. Help teens know that you understand that the social pressures and obligations of a teen can feel like a lot. Encourage them to stay focused on school and other priorities.
Stress safety. Regardless of your views on the timing of sex, safety is an important part of the message to give your teen. Stress the absolute necessity of using a condom every single time. And stress the importance of using birth control. Don't lecture or nag, but don’t be too shy to emphasize this point.
Talk about consent. Consistently remind your teen that they never have to do anything sexual they do not want to, and if their partner does not give enthusiastic consent they should not engage in sexual activity. You can help them think through what boundaries they want to set before they are in a sexual situation to make it easier for them to act within those boundaries in the moment.
Model consent. You can model consent by not hugging or kissing your teen if they do not want to be touched. This communicates that no matter the relationship or what has happened in the past, they can honor what feels appropriate for their bodies in the moment.
Provide the facts. Give teens complete and honest information. Make sure they understand that condoms aren't just for preventing pregnancy, but also for reducing the likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and HIV. Make sure they know that birth control methods do not necessarily provide protection against STIs and HIV.2
Talk with them, instead of preaching. Resist the urge to talk AT them. Instead, share with them. Let them know how you felt and the challenges you faced when you were their age.
Have lots of discussions. Don’t look at this as one huge, overwhelming moment. Keep in mind that talking to your teen is an ongoing conversation. It takes place in bits and pieces over time. It’s not one big talk. Truth be told, when it comes to important topics like relationships, your teen wants to hear from you but might find talking comfortable for only a few minutes at a time. Give your opinion over time, instead of just unloading one large lecture, and allow your teen to think through what you are sharing.
Keep tabs on TV. More than two-thirds of prime time programs contain sexual content, yet only 14 percent of sexual incidents mention risks or responsibilities of sexual activity.3
Make media matter. Eight in 10 adolescents say the media is a good way to start conversations with parents about sex, love, and relationships.1 Spend time watching TV or a movie with your teen and use what happens to the characters as a way to start talking about your own values. Movies and TV shows are great conversation starters because they shift the focus away from teens to characters they might identify with.
Chat in the car. You may find the car to be a good place for having conversations that are slightly uncomfortable. You don’t have to look at each other, and it can be a private setting. Although teens might prefer to listen to music or look out the window, remember they’re listening to you.
Text your teen. The average adolescent sends and receives 50 text messages a day, but makes and receives just five phone calls.4 For adolescents, and even younger children, real-time text-based communications on a cell phone or other mobile device are the norm.5 Send positive text messages to your teen or follow up a conversation with a text that reinforces what you just talked about. Positive messages will also help your teen feel heard and supported. And if the popular texting abbreviations don’t come naturally to you, don’t sweat it. Just write the way you talk.
Your text might say something like:
It means a lot to me that you told me about the problem you're having with your friends. Being a teen is tough sometimes. But you are doing really well. Remember, I'm here to talk more about it if you want to.
Good luck on your math exam today. Proud of you for how hard you studied!
Your performance yesterday at the concert/in the game was amazing. Let's go out tonight and celebrate!
Have fun at the dance! Remember, I'm always happy to give you a ride—call me or text me if your ride home has been drinking.
Hope you'll think more about what we talked about yesterday, and that you'll wait until you're a bit older to have sex. There is no rush and I want to make sure you are ready for it.
Thanks for making dinner with me last night. It was great to get to hear about what's going on with your friends and to spend time with you one-on-one. Love you!
It was great meeting your boyfriend last night! It felt great that you wanted me to get to know him. I'm always here to talk about the relationships in your life.
You have always done things when you were ready for them, not on anyone else's agenda. Keep being true to yourself! Thanks for being honest with me about trying cigarettes. I think it's important to have open communication but for you to remember that smoking is really harmful.
1 Albert, B. (2012). With one voice 2012: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. https://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/cms/lib/NY01000611/Centricity/Domain/171/with%20one%20voice%202012.pdf back to top
4 Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2010/04/20/teens-and-mobile-phones/ back to top
5 Anderson, M. (2015). How having smartphones (or not) shapes the way teens communicate. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/20/how-having-smartphones-or-not-shapes-the-way-teens-communicate/ back to top