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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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