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Tips for talking to your daughter about sex

Wondering how to discuss the birds and the bees with your child? Authors Roni Cohen-Sandler and Dr. Christiane Northrup offer advice to parents.
/ Source: TODAY

Having “the talk” with your daughter doesn't have to be anxiety-ridden or difficult. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of “Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure,” and Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of “Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Understanding the Crucial Link Between Mothers, Daughters and Health,” share advice on how you can discuss sex with your child.

Advice from Roni Cohen-Sandler:

What do girls really want to know at this time? Is it “Mom, how old were you when you first ...?” How do moms handle that, especially when it is about intercourse and oral sex?What girls really want to know is what is normal, and whether they are normal. A mother does not have to divulge information that makes her uncomfortable. She can say, “I understand why you're curious, and that's okay. But it doesn't matter when I did these things or when your friends do them. What matters is when it's right for you to do them. And I'd be happy to talk to you about how to know when you're ready.”

When answering questions is it better to fib a little or to tell the whole truth?    If you lie, girls can sense that immediately and will lose trust in you. But you are not obligated to reveal anything that you don't want to. If you're hesitant or uncomfortable discussing something with your daughter, it's better to come right out and say that directly: “I'm not comfortable talking about that with you, but I'm happy to talk about ___.” In other words, the mother's job is to educate the daughter, teach her values, and make sure she stays safe — not to talk about her own life. 

If a girl has good self-esteem, is she less likely to engage in risky behavior?  
Knowing herself well, assessing social situations accurately, and having a good relationship with her parents all encourage a girl to make smart decisions in her social life. Also, it helps for her to know “what to say” if she is in a potentially risky situation.

How do moms walk the line between being a best friend and a mom?   During the early teen years, moms need to concentrate on being moms. It is too soon to be a friend, a relationship that can and should evolve as girls mature and need less supervision. Right now, mothers have to feel free to be the voices of reason, convey values, and to do whatever they have to to keep girls safe — without worrying about making their daughters upset or losing their “friendship.”

What are the top three ways for moms to talk to their daughters about sex? What really works?Rather than scheduling “The Talk” make sure your daughter can count on spending some time alone with you on a regular basis. Often, it is during routine errands to the post office or the bank that girls will suddenly open up or ask important questions. Some daughters are more accessible at night, in that sleepy state before bed when their defenses are down. Another productive time is in the car. Because mothers and daughters are not face to face, girls feel less interrogated and scrutinized, even though they are captive audiences. Plus, the motion of the car usually lulls girls into a more relaxed state. Another great opportunity is after watching a movie or TV show together. When you ask your daughter for her opinions about the characters' sexual attitudes and activities, she is more apt to answer honestly than if you ask the same questions about her or her close friends. If you read a pertinent story in a magazine or newspaper, mention to your daughter what you learned, and then ask what she thinks about it. However, if you bring up a topic and your daughter lets you know she's not interested in discussing it, don't push the point. Let her know you respect her wishes — and try again in the future. 

Some moms think they have a great relationship with their daughters. How can they confirm if they're askable parents?  Although there is probably no way to guarantee that your daughter will always come to you with questions, there are many things you can do to encourage her to do so. Start talking with your daughter when she is young. Make conversations pleasant, without letting them escalate into arguments. Encourage her to ask any question she wants by assuring her that she won't “get in trouble.” She will believe what you say when she tests you by asking something controversial, and then checking out whether you get upset or “freak out.” When you convey that you are interested in her thoughts, are non-judgmental, and remain open to discussing ideas that are different from your own, your daughter will be more likely to come to you with further questions. Asking her now and then if she is curious or confused about anything can also be helpful, but don't badger her. If she says no, she simply may not believe she has anything to ask.

In terms of starting a dialogue with your daughter, how do you make yourself available?   There is no magic time for having important dialogues about sexuality or anything else. But the more time you spend together, and the more opportunities you have for relaxed conversation (as opposed to rushing hectically from one activity to another), the more likely it is she'll be inclined to talk.

How much hovering needs to be done?
Every mother needs to ask herself this question about every daughter — and frequently. Depending upon your daughter's age, maturity, experiences, and present social situation, she may need more or less supervision from you. And to complicate matters, this can change by the hour! That is why it is crucial for mothers to be attuned to what is going on in their daughters' lives and assess as often as possible what they need. Although there is no way to get this exactly right all the time, at least your daughter knows she is important enough to you for you to make this effort.

Advice from Dr. Christiane Northrup:

Being able to talk honestly and openly with your daughter about sex will go a long way toward helping her accept her sexuality as a normal part of life. And this will enable her to negotiate her way more skillfully through our current culture in which young teens are exposed to more sexually explicit material than ever before, and at younger ages. Accurate and relevant information about all aspects of human sexuality — including her own sexual nature and feelings — will empower a young woman to learn how to accept her natural sexuality and eventually express it in healthy, appropriate, and responsible ways that do not harm her or anyone else.

Being able to talk to your mother — or a surrogate mother — about sexuality helps a daughter cope with her own changing body, her powerful sexual feelings, and the reality of peer pressure. Having accurate information and understanding about her own sexuality also offers protection against the consequences of premature sexual activity, e.g. pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted disease. Here are my top three “rules” for discussing sex with young teens.

1. Become comfortable with your own sexuality. All humans are sexual beings who have sexual feelings. Sex is a normal part of life. In fact, life itself is sexually transmitted! Trying to deny our sexual nature is neither helpful or effective. Sex shouldn't be taboo, shameful, or cloaked in secrecy. Having sexual feelings is never a problem. But there are clearly both responsible and irresponsible ways to think about and express these feelings. You want to teach your daughter that it's possible to make a conscious link between sexual energy and creativity and learn how to channel it in ways that are respectful and healthy.  

You obviously don't have to share the intimate details of your sex life with your daughter, but she will know by your own attitude and your behavior whether or not you are comfortable with the topic of sex. If she senses that you are uncomfortable about sex and that discussing it is a big taboo for you, she'll pick up on this and avoid discussing her concerns with you. And as a result, she may get her information from less reliable sources or simply act out her sexual feelings in ways that may be risky. Examples of this would be a mother who censors all sexual material on television by turning off the channel without any explanation, or who snoops through her daughter's bedroom drawers or diary, looking for evidence of her daughter's sexuality. This kind of censoring behavior forces a daughter to hide her sexuality and may favor sexual “acting out” which could be dangerous.

2. Don't make sexuality a “separate” conversation from other aspects of life. In other words, don't make a big deal out of it. Instead, treat it as a normal part of life. And use the normal process of life to present the opportunity to talk about sex. Use the content of popular television shows as a springboard for discussing sex in an open and honest way. I personally watched “The Blue Lagoon” with my daughters when they were young teens. This is a beautiful, sensual, idealized movie about a young shipwrecked couple who come of age together, and begin a sexual relationship on a deserted desert island. Watching some PG-13 movies (such as “American Pie”) together with your daughter is another option. She'll learn a lot when you share your thoughts with her after watching such a movie. 

You might also talk to your daughter about her menstrual cycle when she is having her period (or you are having yours) and use this normal biologic event as a way to discuss how different sexual feelings are associated with different times of the month, e.g. that ovulation tends to be associated with increased libido.3. Make use of surrogate mothers. Even in the closest and healthiest mother-daughter relationships, there are some topics that daughters simply don't feel comfortable talking about with their own mothers. Anticipate this and engender an environment in which your daughter has a variety of other “mothers” she can talk to. This might include aunts, grandmothers, older sisters or cousins, or the mothers of her close friends. Sharing responsibility for helping all young women embrace and celebrate their sexuality responsibly and healthfully works best in a community of like-minded individuals, all of whom can do their part to help our young women grow up to be confident and empowered about all aspects of their natural bodily functions and feelings.