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How to Talk About Sex with a Preteen
When I was in High School I started an afterschool group under my mother's non-profit, SMART, named SMART Youth. SMART Youth's mission remains the same today as it did back when we began; to provide a judgement-free safe space where preteens and teens can come together, share their experiences, learn about safe sex, their bodies, health, and how to be advocates, and feel empowered in doing so.
I can understand how sex can be a scary topic for parents to address with their kids, but trust me--if you do not talk to your kids about it, the issue will not just go away. They will seek answers elsewhere--and it may not always be in positive places.
As a parent it is your responsibility to protect your children--and that includes providing them with the information they need to protect themselves.
When you finally decide to sit down and talk with your preteen, try to make the conversation as comfortable as possible. Maybe you decide to do it over a meal, or while playing a card game, or anything that will allow you and your son or daughter moments to focus on something other than each other. Do not set up a situation where you are sitting across from each other and your child feels like they are in trouble. That is just going to make the whole conversation uncomfortable and awkward.
Take a breath. Be natural. If you are anxious, you are going to make your kid anxious--or they will just find you irritating (you know how kids that age are, sheesh). Be cool!
...and by that I mean, just be normal. Don't try and infuse your conversation with preteen lingo. Your child will not take you seriously after that.
In this moment, treat your son or daughter as a peer and not your "little baby." This may be difficult, but if you want them to listen to you and take you seriously, you have to take them seriously. You may not see them as mature adults just yet--but your kids have thought they were grown since they were 5-years-old. Believe me. In your preteen's mind s/he his a full grown adult--and anyone older...is just OLD.
This notion may sound crazy, maybe even laughable to you, but to get through to your kids you really have to try and see life through their eyes.
In addition to treating your preteen like an adult, you should also respect them by allowing them the opportunity to talk. This should not be a one-sided conversation. You may learn as much from your preteen as they learn from you. Some things...you may not really want to learn, but a genuine discussion of the topic is a definite must. Make this very clear in the beginning too, your son or daughter may not realize they have this freedom to speak.
Try not to be embarrassed by what may come up. Different positions, masturbation, and all sorts of topics may come up. Prepare yourself for that and try to be open-minded to discussing everything.
The more mature and open-minded you are during the conversation, the more comfortable your preteen will feel about talking to you.
Do NOT Lose Your Temper
Your son or daughter may confess things to you that you absolutely do not agree with. It is important that their honesty and openness is met with understanding and not hostility. If this is to succeed you must provide a safe space for your preteen. You can let them know you don't approve. But explain to them, clearly, WHY you don't agree so they understand your concern.
If you punish your child for something they admitted to you during this conversation, they may feel like you tricked them into talking. This will cause tension and distrust between you, which is really the last thing you need when it comes to preteens and teens. As if your teenager needed another reason to think you are the worst! Your preteen will not see you as someone they can turn to for guidance--they will do everything in their power to avoid you.
Keeping condoms in your medicine cabinet will not encourage your preteen to have sex, but it won't give them an excuse to NOT be protected if they do decide to have sex either! It is never a bad idea to allow your son or daughter access to protection.
Scare Tactics Don't Work
If they did Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 on MTV wouldn't exist.
What does work is facts. By all means, show your kid a photo of genitalia plagued by herpes to make sure they're paying attention, but give them the facts. Don't tell them if they have sex their junk will fall off or they'll die or they'll be damned for all eternity--because that just isn't true.
The problem with scare tactics is that they may work for a little while, but eventually they wear off. The thought of STDs and unplanned pregnancy begins to fall in the same category as the Boogie man or the Monster in the closet. Sure, your preteen knows they exist, but there's just no way it'll happen to them! Especially if their friends are doing it and nothing is happening to them.
Facts! List STIs and STDs, what causes them, how they affect the body, how they are treated, are they curable, and just how likely a sexually active person, not practicing safe sex, can get them. Share other facts as well, such as condoms don't protect against herpes entirely because it's transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, cervical cancer can develop from unprotected sex because of HPV, or a woman can get pregnant even if she has anal sex unprotected. Do your research! You don't need ghost stories to get your children to understand just how serious sex is.
You won't be there when your son or daughter makes the decision to have sex, but your lessons will. Hopefully, by sharing the facts, your preteen will realize that there is great risk and responsibility that comes with having sex.
Message from SMART Youth:
If you want to make a difference and help others while learning about sexual health and keeping yourself safe, then you need to join SMART Youth! You can come to any of our events around the city or come to one of our movie nights or Open Mic events. Check out our schedule to learn what we are doing or call Janet at (212) 633-2500 x601/e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Seek Outside Assistance
If it feels like you've done everything you can to get through to your preteen and they just aren't getting the message, don't be ashamed to look for help. Research youth groups in your community. Teens are more likely to open up (and listen to) people their own age than their parents (if only they understood you've already been through everything they're going through!). Your clinic may have a youth group your child can attend or at least know of some resources.
If you live in NYC, I would strongly recommend looking up SMART Youth. If you don't live in NYC, SMART Youth still has a lot of great, informational blog posts on their website that will help move the discussion along. When you have some time, check it out, and share it with your son or daughter. In this digital era, they may be more comfortable asking questions online than having a face-to-face conversation anyway.
Best of luck, parents! I wish you and your family good health and informed minds. :)