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The birds and bees: Talking sex with your child

Nervous about having “the talk” with your kids? Prepare for your lesson in sex ed with the right tools: clear information, good timing and a sense of humor. Therapist Dr. Laura Berman offers advice in her new book, “Talking to Your Kids About Sex.” Here is an excerpt.

Your child’s intimate relationship
Relationships differ from adolescence to adulthood — which you probably know already, having gone through both yourself. However, adolescent relationships should still be treated with respect, particularly as intimacy increases. A supportive attitude will encourage your child to be more open, which in turn will give you opportunities to offer guidance on sexual decision-making.

The first intimate relationship
Most parents will experience their child going through a variety of crushes and casual relationships, so it can be difficult to know when he has actually moved on to a more serious relationship — and everything that might entail, including physical and emotional intimacy. The best barometer you have to judge your child’s relationship is conversation. Talk to him about his relationship, and try to ask questions that will illuminate the seriousness of the relationship. Your child might be hesitant or shy to speak at first, but the more you seem genuinely interested in his relationship — as opposed to anxious or judgmental — the more he will feel safe sharing these personal details.

For example, you might ask: “How long have you and Kate been together now? Almost a year, right? That’s a long time. Do you ever talk about the future? Do you think you will try to apply to the same colleges? If you go to different schools, will you try to maintain a long-distance relationship, or do you think you will break up?”

Communication in teenage relationships
The biggest difference between teenage relationships and adult relationships is the teenager’s ability to communicate effectively. Unlike adults who have had time to discover how to communicate with others in general, and with their significant other in particular, teenagers are just beginning to learn these lessons, particularly when it comes to dating relationships. For example, a teenage girl might feel angry with her boyfriend but pretend like nothing is wrong until weeks later when she finally breaks down, or a teenage boy might not be able to express “I love you” to his girlfriend even though he wants to.

The combination of poor communication and budding hormones means that teenage relationships tend to be short-lived but quite intense — which is why your teenager might become very upset after ending a relationship that lasted only a few months. Power struggles often play a big role in teenage relationship dynamics, and you may notice this in your child’s early relationships as she begins to discover what it means to be in love. You may also notice that negative feedback from peers will deter your child from a relationship — while alternately, enough parental disapproval can serve to cement the relationship. This is all part of the teenage experience of seeking autonomy and struggling to define personal identity.

As your teen continues to date and learn from experience, her ability to communicate and express her feelings will improve, and her relationships will deepen and grow as a result. You will notice her beginning to feel more comfortable and confident in her worth as a relationship partner, and also beginning to place more value and priority on her partner’s feelings and needs. All of this will help your child develop greater maturity and a healthier self-esteem, which means fewer fights and breakups, and more healthy, serious, developed, and adult-like relationships.

Your child’s relationship is becoming more intimate if …

Talking openly with your teen about her relationship is one of the best ways to stay in touch with the stage of your child’s relationship — and also with the likelihood of physical intimacy. Other signs that your child is progressing to a sexual relationship (or is already involved in a sexual relationship) may include:

  • Desiring more privacy and space, particularly in her bedroom (which might be where she keeps birth control or other items she may not want you to find)
  • Asking for more freedom with her curfew and nightly activities
  • Experiencing mood swings that she can’t fully explain, especially if these relate to time spent with her significant other

Sex and intimacy
It is a good idea to start having conversations about the emotional connection that comes along with sex as you talk about physical information and concerns. Helping your child understand the deeper meaning of sex can go a long way in postponing intimacy. You can also introduce your child to other paths to intimacy that will progress a relationship, but that aren’t purely physical.

Sex and emotions
Often when parents discuss sex with their children, they tend to focus on the physical risks, such as pregnancy or STDs, or their religious or moral reasons for abstinence. Remember that it’s also good to talk about the link between sexual activity and emotions.

A good way to start this conversation is to talk to your teen about how sex in real life isn’t like it is in the movies, with romantic music and candlelight. Nor is it always mutually pleasurable. While you shouldn’t scare your teen from ever wanting to have sex, you can explain that real sex can be awkward, especially the first time, and that this is why you should wait until you are with someone you trust and feel safe sharing your body and soul with.

For example, you might say: “Have you noticed how sex seems so easy in the movies? In real life, sex can be romantic, but it isn’t always perfect. You don’t just bare your body when you have sex; you also bare your soul.”

As part of this conversation, you can also talk to your teenager about how to increase intimacy in her relationship without sexual activity. Teenagers tend to see relationships as linear and growing toward sexual activity. However, there are many different ways to be emotionally intimate with a partner, some of which do not include intercourse. Try to give your teen some ideas of ways she can increase intimacy in her relationship without having sex, such as by introducing him to the family. By creating a bond that isn’t purely physical, your teen can build a healthy foundation for a time when she does decide to have sex.
Male and female perspectives
When men and women reach orgasm, their brains are flooded with oxytocin, otherwise known as the “cuddle” hormone. Oxytocin creates feel-good emotions and feelings of bonding. Research suggests that male levels of testosterone counteract this release of oxytocin, minimizing its effect. In other words, while women are experiencing an oxytocin “high,” men might not feel the same intimacy.

Thus, while a teenage girl might feel very bonded with her partner after sex, a teenage boy might feel unattached. Of course, this isn’t true in every situation. However, it’s important to talk to your teenagers about how these hormones might affect their sexual experience.

Try saying something like: “I know I have taught you that boys and girls are equal, and they are. But that doesn’t mean that we are the same. Men and women have different hormones that affect the way they think and feel, and some of your hormones might make you feel in love with your partner after you have sex.”

Teachable moments

Talking about intimacy
Finding everyday moments to discuss intimacy with your child can make these very personal conversations feel more natural, and will also encourage your child to feel more comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns.

  • In the supermarket: After reading the headlines about a teenage celebrity couple breaking up, talk with your teen about how much more difficult breakups can be if sexual intimacy is involved. For example, “Did you hear about [insert star couple’s name] breaking up? [Celebrity name] seemed pretty upset about it in the story I read. After you have sex with someone, that level of intimacy can make breaking up even more difficult, especially if the breakup is shortly after you have sex.”

  • During a breakup: Use this time to talk to your teen about how he is feeling, and about how much more complicated those feelings can be after sexual intimacy. For example, “I was sorry to hear that you decided to break up with Tori, she was a nice girl. Was she very upset, or did she understand that you didn’t want to get too serious with anyone right now? You know, once you have sex, breaking up becomes even harder, especially for girls. That’s why it’s really not a good idea to have casual sex with someone, or to have sex with them before you are ready to take things to the next level.”

  • While talking about safer sex: Safer sex isn’t just about being safe physically, so take this opportunity to branch into a conversation about how to be safe emotionally as well. For example, say, “I know that you know how to protect yourself from STDs and pregnancy, but sex can also be risky because it involves your emotions. When you have sex with someone, you let them into your body and your soul. This intimacy can be very intense, and should only be shared between two people who love each other and trust each other 100%.”

Excerpted with permission from “Talking to Your Kids About Sex” by Laura Berman (DK Adult).

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