Talking with Teens about Relationships

Note: The tips shared on this page may refer to "parents," but they also apply to caregivers, such as guardians, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. Additionally, much of the research cited below refers to "parents" or asks adolescents about their "parents." However, the research cited here may extend to other caregivers who have secure attachments to the adolescents in their lives.

Most parents, and likely caregivers (such as guardians, aunts, uncles, or grandparents), want to talk to their teens about sexual activity, sexuality, and relationships, and most adolescents want to hear from their parents about these topics.1,2 But many parents say that when it comes to talking to their teens about these issues, they don’t know what to say, how to say it, or even when to say it.3

Talking with your teen about sex shouldn’t be a one-time conversation. Like almost everything important in your teen’s life, it is something that will need to be done over and over again. Conversations about these topics should start early and continue—and change—as your teen gets older. Adolescents go through a lot of changes during adolescence and helping them figure out all of their relationships, including their sexual relationships, is important and can really pay off. Studies have shown that communication between adolescents and parents or caregivers about sex, birth control, and pregnancy is positively associated with delayed initiation of sex, decreased frequency of sex, and increased condom and contraception use.2

In a 2016 survey, more than half (52 percent) of 12-15 year olds said that parents most influenced their decisions about sex, whereas 17 percent said friends most influence their decision. This difference between parent and peer influence is also seen among older adolescents (age 16-19), although the gap between them narrows. Adolescents consistently report parents as most influential in their decisions about sex, and most teens want to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.1

Although relationships between adolescents and their parents or caregivers are unique, and only you know exactly what you want to say to your teen, sometimes it helps to get some suggestions on what to say.

What Teens Want to Know from Parents and Caregivers

#1: Tell me why teen pregnancy isn’t a good idea and help me think about positive opportunities for my future.

Don’t assume teens only see the bad things about teen pregnancy. Be sure to ask what they think about early pregnancy and parenthood and how it would change their goals for the future. Ask teens about their ideas for the future and provide them with specific ways they can make their dreams a reality. Encourage teens to explore their interests and passions and support them in their pursuit of their goals. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about how getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy will get in the way of their goals and don’t assume they’ve thought about this themselves.

#2: Just telling me not to have sex or to “be safe” isn’t enough. Tell me why you feel the way you do.

Make sure teens understand why you’re asking them to do certain things. They want to know what your values and attitudes are about these topics. Remember to talk to them about relationships and some of the emotional aspects of sex, not just the health and safety messages.

Some things you might say:

  • It’s okay to think about sex and to feel sexual desire. Everybody does. But if you get pregnant/get somebody pregnant, it will be harder for you to graduate from high school and go on to college. It also will be harder for you to reach your goals for the future.
  • You shouldn’t feel pressure to have sex without using contraception in order to have or keep a relationship with someone. If sex without using contraception is the price of your relationship, you deserve to find someone else.
  • I’d really like you to wait to have sex until you’re in a serious, committed, healthy adult relationship.

#3: Don’t assume that just because I ask you a question about sex or contraception it means I’m having sex.

Teens may ask about sex or contraception because they are curious or heard something that they want explained. If you freak out the first time they ask you a question about sex or contraception, they’ll probably be shy about asking you again. Also remember that giving young people information about these topics doesn’t encourage them to have sex, but it can go a long way toward making sure they have accurate information. It can help begin a series of conversations with them about these topics. When they do ask questions about these topics, make sure you recognize the question, understand the question, and understand what it is they’re trying to learn. If you don’t know the answer to a question your teen asks, don’t be afraid to admit it and suggest looking up the answer together.

#4: Tell me you are proud of me and love me.

Make sure you are communicating to your teen when they make a good decision or act responsibly. Positive reinforcement (acknowledging and praising positive behaviors like doing their homework or walking the dog without being asked, or leaving a party that feels unsafe to them) can be a more effective tool for shaping children’s and teens’ behavior than lecturing (for example, “you shouldn’t have been at that party to begin with”) or correcting negative behavior.4 This sort of praise communicates that you see and appreciate your teen and their efforts to make you proud. Expressing love for and pride in who your teen is tells them you accept them for who they are, which can open lines of communication and make them feel safe coming to you with problems or challenges. 

To learn more about preparing for difficult conversations, visit Conversation Tools.

Footnotes

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. Retrieved from https://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/cms/lib/NY01000611/Centricity/Domain/171/with%20one%20voice%202012.pdf back to top

2 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, November 1). Talking with Your Teens about Sex: Going Beyond “the Talk.” https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/protective/factsheets/talking_teens.htm back to top

3 Ashcraft, A. M., & Murray, P. J. (2018). Talking to parents about adolescent sexuality. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 64(2), 305-320. back to top

4 Leijten, P., Gardner, F., Mendelez-Torres, G., J., van Aar, J., Hutchings, J., Schultz, S., Knerr, W., & Overbeek, G. (2019). Meta-analyses: Key parenting program components for disruptive child behavior. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 58(2), 180-190. back to top