The day has arrived. Your child has their first boyfriend or girlfriend.
When a big life event happens, like a first relationship, I often get a flurry of emails, calls and texts from parents asking for resources like birth control or free condoms.
But by that time, it can often be too late to address the issue. Why wait until they are in a relationship to talk through important issues? How can parents of teens have a conversation and an open line of communication upon his or her first relationship without it seeming like an after-school special? Here are some of my favorite tips to address questions and concerns.
- Start the conversation EARLY (as in, when they’re in diapers). Lay the groundwork for open communication when your child is small. Many parents shy away from “taboo” topics such as correct names for genitals, good/bad touches and saying “no” because it’s uncomfortable, or perceived as inappropriate and impolite. Children are naturally curious and should get correct information from their parents, before getting misinformation from someone else.
- Be “ask-able.” Practice not being shocked at the (possibly shocking) things kids will ask and say to you. Most of the time, children simply want to know about things they’ve heard, read or experienced. Try to put aside your reaction and address the question with a calm affirmation, such as, “I’m so glad you asked me that” or “That’s a great question!” Doing this will help the child feel validated and not judged. They will be more likely to come to you for answers and advice.
- Be engaged in their digital and social lives. Don’t tune in when your kid hits middle school - that’s too late. When they begin to spend time with other children and when they begin using technology, social media and video games, be engaged with what they’re doing. Get to know their friends, the friend’s parents and have full access to their phones and computers so you can peruse their digital communication. Have an agreement with your child about what is and isn’t private before you access their technology.
- Late night chats (or drives) are great times for dialog. Often, kids are tired or distracted during the day and don’t feel like talking about everything. However, some kids loosen up and become much chattier later in the day, when their brain bounces back, right before bed. Take advantage of this. Sit and read a book while your kids are doing their homework. Hang out while they’re playing a video game or practicing their instrument. Have them go with you on a late-night errand. Be awake when your teen gets home from hanging out with friends. Just being around helps a teen feel comfortable opening up.
- Use news, pop culture or current events for sparking conversation. Sometimes bringing up a difficult topic can be tough when there’s no good intro for it. However, there are many current events that can be a trigger for a conversation.
- When it comes to discussing sex and birth control, straightforward is best. Though bringing up a word like “sex” or “condoms” with your teen can be uncomfortable, it’s often best to be direct and frank. Don’t wait for your kids to ask. Give them the information and tell them you’re open to questions or give them an appropriate resource to get more information. Avoid them having to search online. They should have access to the best, medically accurate information. Communicate with your child that you are open to taking them to a doctor or clinic to discuss birth control options. If your child begins dating someone, seems to be spending a lot of time with friends and has given any impression that they may be considering sexual activity (or if their friends have become sexually active) offer your help. Know that this does NOT condone or promote sexual activity!
- Encourage your teen to speak to his/her pediatrician or a clinic about sexual health matters. Sometimes the pediatrician will bring this up with the patient in private. The doctor should respect his or her privacy and help make her feel safe. Often, it involves the parent. Either way, parents should respect this process and remain open, accepting and willing to listen to their child and the doctor about what’s best for the teen.
Supporting your child through the difficult teen years can seem daunting. Simply put, if you have helped guide your child throughout their lives through age-appropriate sexuality education and access to resources, it should help them consider the social, emotional and physical consequences of sexual activity BEFORE they act.
Being “ask-able” and available for not only questions and discussions, but to help recognize when it’s time to take action and obtain condoms and birth control helps your child stay safer, longer. They are more likely to respect their own body and the bodies of their partners, and understand why thought, consideration and preparation are essential before making a decision about sexual activity.