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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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