One day, you look up and your baby isn’t a baby anymore. They’re a full-blown teen with hormones to match. It’s time to have the much-anticipated conversation (conversations, really) about intimacy before they piece together information they find online. While it’s unlikely you’ll be the first to cover the basics with them, your involvement in discussing intimacy is essential.
Your teen’s expectations about relationships and those that become intimate are largely based on their environment and conversations. Parents who forgo these all-important discussions are missing an opportunity to help their teens experience healthy relationships.
Teens may not always love listening, but that’s no reason to skip the chance to prepare them. The conversations you have with them about healthy intimacy now will help them develop solid and safe relationships for life.
1. Establish a No-Shame Narrative About Intimacy
Talking about intimacy can be awkward, especially when it’s done with your parents. Sex is viewed as taboo, even though its existence propels our existence forward. Start your conversation on the right note by articulating that everything is fair game for discussion.
Level with your teen about where you’re coming from. Most times, your first discussion is devoted to opening up the topic for consideration and making yourself available for questions. You may be met with a groan and an eyeroll, but putting yourself out there is a big first step.
Let your teen know that you’re there for them and that no question is too weird. Admit you don’t know everything but that you can learn together as they move closer to adulthood.
2. Treat Your Parent-Child Relationship With Care
No one wants to hear about their parents’ sex lives, so be mindful of where you kick off the conversation. Sharing personal experience can be a helpful way to get your points across, but beware of “giving them a picture.”
Being invited on a date may spark a conversation with your teen about etiquette and expectations for both parties. Ask your teen what they hope to get out of the evening and to share what they’re most excited about. While sex may be further into the future, discuss their comfort level with other potential components of the date. Talking about what’s ahead can help both of you articulate expectations and work through unknowns.
You could also take advantage of a shared experience to inspire a timely conversation. A scene in a favorite show could touch on birth control, leaving you with a perfect opening for a discussion. Focus on listening more than speaking, asking questions that invite thoughtful responses.
Encourage your teen to lead the conversation, keeping an open mind and heart, even if you venture into new territory. If you feel you’re outside of your expertise, be honest, and discuss ways of getting information together.
3. Model and Describe Healthy Relationships
Just as children’s books remind us, kids repeat what they see. While you aren’t a monkey jumping on the bed, your teen has likely seen your relationships firsthand. Sometimes they’re excellent examples of healthy relationships. Other times, they could use some work.
No matter your experience, it’s important to guide your teen to understand what types of relationships they should strive for. Discuss mutual respect, agency, and consent with your teen in ways they can understand. They may not want to disclose to you their current level of experience or awareness, so provide multiple examples. Focus on foundational relationship principles and shift into discussing intimacy once you both reach a level of comfort.
Remember, this is an ongoing process, and it will take time to hit all of the points of your internal curriculum. Include relationship discussions in your regular narrative, and soon they’ll come more naturally to both of you.
4. Talk About Boundaries and How to Protect Them
Boundaries can feel like a buzzword, but they’re an important component of the human experience. Acknowledging your own boundaries and articulating them consistently is often a sign of an individual in tune with their needs. In relationships, both intimate and otherwise, boundaries are a way to protect one’s heart, mind, and body.
Kick off the conversation by sharing your boundaries and what you do to preserve them. Encourage your teen to share theirs and provide examples of what they can do to make sure they’re respected. For example, maybe they don’t like hugging relatives they rarely see. Extending a hand to shake before Great-uncle Jim can go in for the clinch is one such strategy.
Once you’re comfortable with the definition and basic practices, shift into what this means in intimate situations. Share your experiences as you are comfortable, offering real-life examples in good and bad situations. If you have a cautionary message, reassure your teen with tactics to help them if things ever go off course.
5. Get Real About Abuse and How to Identify and Prevent It
Abuse is something no one should ever have to deal with. But unfortunately, it is very real and can be disguised behind the most beautiful of masks. Social media has helped shed some light on physical, mental, and verbal abuse. Because of this, your teen may be familiar with certain terms, such as gaslighting, or know of specific stories. Strive to understand what they know today and work together to identify what to look for in the future.
Employ resources from reputable organizations dedicated to preventing sexual violence to help bolster your conversation. Every 68 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, and every 9 minutes, that someone is a child. While you want to equip your teen with tools to help them avoid such a fate, your work doesn’t end there. Help them learn about how to protect themselves and speak up for their friends. From assisting survivors to advocating for better public policy, there’s much they can do in the fight against sexual violence.
Embracing Changes in Your Relationship With Your Teen
Gone are the days of Saturday morning snuggles; today’s reality brings more complex problems than diaper changes. While you can feel wistful thinking about your once-small baby, recognize the opportunity in parenting a teen. You have a chance to mold a member of society, instilling in them traits, behaviors, and practices that impact everything. Helping them establish healthy intimate relationships will be a cornerstone of their adult experience.
As they enter into relationships over the years, their foundational knowledge of respect, agency, and consent will impact others. When they conduct themselves in a manner that respects all parties, they help establish a new baseline among their generation.
There will be uncomfortable moments as you begin discussing intimate relationships with your teen, but that awkwardness won’t last forever. What will last are your lessons, especially those close to the heart, for them and their future partners.