Talking sex with your teen - what is that awkwardness REALLY about?
I’ve talked to many parents over the years who have made comments to me such as “I know I need to talk to my kids about sex but its so awkward - I don’t what to say!” or “My child refuses to listen when I try to talk about sex, it’s embarrassing for us both.”
I’ve heard teenagers say things such as “I’m open with my parents about everything except sex, but there is no way I can or want to talk to them about this!” or “My parents would kill me if I even tried to talk about sex!”.
As attachment focused therapists, we see clearly how attachment impacts this dynamic. You likely see your child as a part of yourself, whom you have loved, raised and guided into the individual they are. You feel a connection to your teen that is unlike your connection with any other human. Your desire to protect them from pain and heartache is real! You work tirelessly to guide them into making good decisions, building a strong sense of self and being a happy person! When it comes to protecting them from accidental pregnancy or STDs, you feel lost in an area where the stakes are high.
Bottom line - teenagers do NOT want to be seen as a sexual being by their parents. YUCK!!! So awkward! They will do anything to avoid the topic with you.
As frustrating as this is, it makes sense when we pause for a moment and realize this is likely your child’s first experience feeling THIS awkward or uneasy with you. The secure attachment you’ve worked hard to create has likely created space for your child to talk to you about sports, school, friends. But this is different! It can be so scary for them to think about you seeing them as someone who is desiring sex or curious about it. They often don’t know what to do with all of their feelings, questions or this new ‘awkward’ feeling between you. In those moments, you might see your teenager shut down, walk away, respond with a sarcastic comment. It will most likely be frustrating for you (because you want to help!) and feel like your son or daughter is pushing you away (and maybe even be mean to you!). If we are honest, you might even respond with your own sarcastic comment!
Good news - I can translate this ‘teenage-speak’ into language you can understand!
When your teen shuts down or gets snarky around this subject, he or she is thinking: ‘I don’t understand my body and don’t know what is normal so I’m uncomfortable’ or ‘I’m having these thoughts and dreams and don’t understand them, but I’m afraid to ask’ or ‘I’m afraid this is wrong and you’ll be mad at me, so it’s easier to avoid the subject’ or ‘I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble and I don’t want to let you down’.
In my opinion some of these thoughts come from the stigma our society has created about sex and the age old message that kids can’t talk to their parents about sex. It can be hard to have healthy conversations about sexuality when the adult brain understands the profound importance of consent and safety, but the teen’s brain is still trying to figure out desire and pleasure. So the awkwardness wins and no one talks.
Research tells us over and over again that teenagers want your opinions and guidance about everything, even relationships and sex. Your relationship with them is often their most safe place. This conversation can be rich. not only with information but also in contributing to a deeper bond between you after you both push past the awkwardness of the topic!
So, next time your teen responds with a snarky comment or seems like they are pushing you away, I encourage you to pause, translate the message so you can hear their fear and uncertainty… and then lean back in. Try again.
Engaging in some couples counseling or individual therapy can really help you navigate this important subject together. Family therapy can also be a great way to help you continue to understand your teen’s experiences while navigating your own responses!
After all, that hardwired need to protect and nurture your child is alive and well in those moments and we want to help you push past the awkwardness into a rich and fulfilling experience.
Check back in for Part B of this post where one of our therapists Jessie Briegel will offer ideas on how to push through the awkwardness and land in a rich and helpful conversation with your teen about sex!