The Sex Talk. The New Research Every Parent Needs to Know.

The Sex Talk: The New Research That Every Parent Needs to Know

When it comes to our kids, there are the ‘firsts’ that love-bomb us every time we go there. They’re the ones that are easy to think about – the first time we laid eyes on them, their first word, their first day at school. Then there are the ones that are harder, but just as inevitable – their first broken heart, their first drink, the first time they have sex. These experiences are a very normal, healthy part of them growing into the amazing adults we know they will be. They are the firsts that will happen without us. 

Some of those things we won’t be able to prepare them for, such a broken heart. Nothing prepares you for that. When it happens, they’ll learn, they’ll grow, and they’ll find their way back from that broken heart even stronger and wiser than before. Just like we did.

Then there are the things that we have to prepare them for. Bad decisions can happen in a moment, that’s all it takes. That’s why it’s critical to empower them as much as we can, so that when those moments present themselves – which they will – they are well armed.

Drinking and sex are two of the big ones because of the potential for devastating fallout if they make a bad decision. We don’t want to scare them or strip the joy and excitement from their discovery, but we do need to empower them so that their experiences will be ones that build them, not ones that tear them down.

Control. Why we need to let go of it.

The cold hard truth is that we can’t control what they do. We can tell ourselves that we have control, but if they want to do something badly enough, they’ll find a way to do it. They’re smart, they’re resourceful and they’re creative. If we try too hard to control them, we’ll lose them.

What we can have is influence. We can have plenty and it’s vital for them that we strive for as much as possible, but that influence won’t come through control.

The Research – What You Need to Know.

Giving them the information they need is critical, and new research has found that when it comes to sex and drinking, the conversations also have to happen together. According to the research, the decisions our teens make about alcohol and their first sexual experience might make them vulnerable to future problems, such as sexual assault, so they need to realise the risks in mixing the two.

In the study involving 228 women between the ages of 18-20, researchers found that the average age women started drinking was 14. The average age they first had sexual intercourse was 16. 

When the first sexual experience involved alcohol it was most likely to be a hook-up, meaning that it was outside of a relationship, with a partner who was also using substances and after a social gathering involving alcohol.

Not surprisingly, first sexual experiences that involved alcohol were:

  • less planned;
  • less wanted; and
  • rated more negatively overall.

This was compared to those that didn’t involve alcohol. These generally took place within a romantic relationship and were more planned, more wanted and more positive.

Nearly 20% of the women in the group that were under the influence of alcohol when they first had sex reported that it was without their consent. These women were found to be three times more likely to be the victims of incapacitated rape in the future.

What does it mean for the way we talk to our teens?

Drinking and sex are important topics and are often talked about separately. We have the sex talk. And then the drinking talk.

What this study is telling us, is that at some point, these two conversations should happen together. We need to talk to our teens about the risks that are associated with having sex if they’ve been drinking. They need to know how alcohol will affect their capacity to make good decisions and to communicate those decisions clearly.

It’s important that they feel empowered when it comes to making decisions around sex, not scared or shamed or unsure. We want them to feel in control, strong and confident, and this will only come from conversation. Be open with the information, including the things they probably wouldn’t have thought about, so they can make strong, informed decisions that are good for them. There are a few ways to make this happen.

When you’re ready to have the chat …

  1. Establish your credibility.

    Without their trust, nothing we say will land on them. If they can see that you have an open mind about some things, they’ll be more likely to trust your judgement on the things you’re not so prepared to be open about. If you want to influence them about what not to do in relation to drinking and sex, they need to see that you’re open about what they can do. Decide on the things that are okay. Let them know that sex is a wonderful thing when the time is right, but only under certain conditions.

  2. Let nothing be off limits.

    Talk to them openly about sex and drinking and anything else they ask about. An open, curious mind is a wonderful thing. Encourage their curiosity, so they feel safe to come to you for information or guidance when they need it. If they ask a curly question that you don’t have the answer for, Google it with them. (A recent question in our house was how do ducks have sex (given their lack of visible hardware.) We Googled, and both learnt something new.)

  3. Don’t give them rules, give them information.

    The idea is to empower them, not control them, because they need to be able to make strong decisions on their own. Controlling them sends the message that we don’t trust their judgement or their capacity to make decisions and if we don’t trust them, they’ll have a harder time trusting themselves. This leaves them wide open for the one who comes along and tries to persuade them into making decisions that could hurt them.

  4. They need to claim their voice in every decision that affects them. 

    They need to know they have a say in every decision that affects them, otherwise they’ll be looking for someone else to lead at that critical moment. They’re experimenting with their view of the world and their place in it. Ask for their opinions, their ideas, what they want and why it’s important. Support that when you can, and when you can’t, have your good reasons ready to share with them.

  5. 2 yes for yes, 1 no for no.

    Let them know that sex can only be a good thing when both people want to be there. It takes two strong, clear ‘yes’s’ for the go ahead, and one ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ to stop. 

  6. What feels good or right for them is completely up to them.

    They need to be able to trust their judgement around what’s right for them so they don’t get talked out of it. One of the best things we can give them is trust in their own intuition. Every time we point out that they’ve made a good decision, we’re building that trust. Of course they’ll get it wrong sometimes, we all do – it’s part of growing up well – but when that happens, help them understand how they got to that decision and what would be a better one. 

  7. Other people will want different things for different reasons. And that’s okay.

    Difference is what makes humanity rich and wonderful. We want different things, we do different things, we think different things. Just because something is right for the one person, doesn’t mean it’s right for another. Teaching them to respect difference, particularly difference of opinion, will make it easier for them to hold firm and be okay with the times that they want something different to the person they’re with.  

  8. Sex is about feelings – and the emotional ones are the most important.

    Sex is as much an emotional experience as it is a physical one. It’s something to be enjoyed, but that won’t happen if they don’t feel emotionally connected to the person they’re thinking about having sex with. If there is any doubt, disconnection or pressure, sex won’t feel good and it will likely drive a ton of regret. Teach them to check in with what they’re feeling before they agree to have sex, and to be guided by that. It’s their intuition and it knows what’s best for them.

  9. Make sure it’s for the right reasons.

    Sex won’t deepen an emotional connection if there isn’t one to there to begin with. Talk them through the reasons sex can end in heartache. One of the big ones is when people have sex in the hope that it will make someone fall in love with them. Another is because of the fear around what will happen if they say no.

  1. Lift them.

    Let them know they’re amazing. So is their body, and they should only ever share it with people who agree. They’ll always be too good to share the best parts of themselves with idiots who can’t see the obvious.

And finally …

Adolescence is a time of discovery and there are some things they need to discover on their own. It’s how they grow. As the adults in their lives, it’s our job to give them whatever we can to help them spread those amazing wings of theirs to full wingspan and stay safe while they do it. Sometimes they’ll listen to what we have to say. Sometimes they won’t. We were the same. Hopefully they’ll take the important things, though they won’t always make their appreciation for your wisdom and experience obvious. What’s important is that we give them what we can – information, support, space and trust – to empower them to make strong decisions that will nourish them, lift them and build them.

2 Comments

Alison Fields

This article,”The Sex Talk”, I believe was inadequate. In recommending how we talk to our teen girls about sex and alcohol’s negative impact on their decision to have sex, you barely exposed the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” on this issue – leaving girl’s vulnerable to “ship wrecking their lives” by treating sex as a pleasure to be enjoyed without also discussing the other potential consequences if sex ( unwanted pregnancy, venerial diseases, emotional wellbeing, to name a few). No matter the precautions taken, an unwanted pregnancy is a devastating consequence to a female not prepared for this possible outcome of sex. Not to mention the growing # of diseases males and females are contracting and spreading because of merely treating sex as something to enjoy. The talk we need to have with our adolescent daughters (and sons) needs to include the responsibilities of choosing to have sex in addition to the negative role of alcohol in relation to their choice about having sex. I think your article should have mentioned that besides alcohol, ignorance of the real potential outcomes of sex should factor in to an individual’s decision to have it.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Clearly there is a lot about sex that teens need to know, a lot of it before they are teens. They need to know the mechanics of sex, the parts of the body, why they have periods, the risks of an unplanned pregnancy, contraception etc. These are all important issues that need to be discussed, however this is not the scope of this article.

As indicated by the title, this article is a discussion of the new research that parents need to know that needs to happen as part of talking to teens about sex. The article is not intended to be a thorough guide. Not all of the information that teens need to know will be age appropriate at the same time. I would (and did) talk to a ten year old, say, about how how sex works, periods, the risks of unwanted pregnancy, and contraception. I would not talk to a ten year old about the heightened risks of having sex for the first time under the influence of alcohol, such as the risk of sexual assault or sex being a negative experience. The information has to be paced. Kids will be ready for different things at different times, though most likely not ready for everything at once. Parents are best placed to pace these conversations as they know their children better than anyone.

Giving kids the information they need to know about sex will happen over a number of conversations, starting simply and with age appropriate information. The focus of this article is the research that has found that at some point, one of those discussions about sex has to include a discussion about the risks of having sex under the influence of alcohol.

Sex is definitely something to be enjoyed and is a really important part of healthy relationships. Like everything though, it comes with its risks. The idea is to empower teens, not to scare them. Empowering them with good information will mean they can make informed choices that are good for them. Sex in itself isn’t scary, but making bad choices in relation to sex can be. The information has to be balanced, the positive and the negative, if we are expecting to have influence and credibility with our teens. If a teen has a question about sex, a relationship, or something their peers might be doing, they will be more likely to come to a parent who has shown themselves capable of talking about sex in a balanced, positive way.

I hope this addresses your concerns.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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