Sexual Health

Talking to Youth About Sex and Sexuality

Conversations with youth about sex and sexuality may be overwhelming to navigate. Maybe you’re unsure how to bring it up or how to answer questions. It can feel like a lot of pressure to say the right thing. Don’t worry—you are not alone. Lots of adults feel this way.

Rather than thinking of these conversations as purely about sex, we can think of them as conversations about the art of developing healthy relationships. Sex is one piece in the larger conversation about how we want to be treated, how we treat other people, and how to keep ourselves healthy. By framing it this way, it feels a little less intimidating.

It may be awkward at first, but gets better with practice. Plus, these types of conversations are an awesome opportunity to build trust and establish open, honest communication for more topics. Here a few things to keep in mind for starting the conversation.

Listen

As difficult as it may be at times, listening is so important during these conversations. Listening and not interrupting shows you genuinely care what they have to say. Even though you probably know more about the subject, they need to feel heard and understood. Plus, you might learn something you didn’t expect!

How you react matters

“You think what? You heard what? You want to do what to who??” Stay calm. Reacting intensely (including laughing) sends the message that their questions, thoughts, or stories are out of line or not being taken seriously. No one likes to feel ridiculous after sharing something personal. If you’re unsure how best to react or need a moment to process, default to asking questions like, “What do you think about that?” or “Tell me more about that.” Asking questions shows interest and leads to better understanding. Misinformation about sex and sexuality is constantly passed around among youth. They may simply be repeating something they heard one time, and not actually want to do that to that person.

Give accurate information

By giving young people medically accurate information, they can better advocate for themselves; they can ask the doctor questions, they know what to look up online, and they can pass along accurate information to their cohorts. They can also tell you when something is going on with them that they’re worried about or that may be non-consensual.

Note: At times, it can be helpful to be up to date on slang that youth are using related to sex. If they use slang, still always respond with medically accurate information. If they use a term you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask what it means. When youth get to teach adults something, it can be incredibly empowering for them!

If you don’t know the answer to a question, that’s ok

No matter the amount of sex you’ve had, books you’ve read, life you’ve lived, or anything else, there’s a good chance you probably still don’t know everything about a subject, including sex. And that’s ok! If a young person asks a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t fib and come up with one. If they find out it’s not true, they’ll be less inclined to come back with questions in the future. If you’re unsure about a question, it’s a great chance to look up the answer together online. In addition to getting them great information this way, you’re showing them reliable resources to find more information.

Compassion: Treat youth as the kind, smart, important individuals they are

Being young can be hard. Everyone just wants to blend in, which is hard with weird growth spurts, hormonal changes, social media, questionable fashion trends, and all the other crap young people deal with. Maybe it’s been awhile, but try to remember what it was like. By seeing some of yourself in youth and recognizing that yeah, what they’re going through is tough, you can express compassion in conversations about sex and sexuality. Doesn’t everyone ultimately just want to understand themselves and feel understood? Validate young people’s feelings by saying things like, “I understand why you feel that way” or “That sounds really tough. You are doing a great job” or “I’m so happy you feel comfortable talking to me about this.”

Keep the conversation going

Sex and sexuality is not a stopover conversation. Think about sex within your own life. What it means to you changes with different experiences and where you’re at in your life. No matter how old you are or how much sex you’ve had, it’s a constant learning process of deciding when you’re ready with a partner, discovering what you like and don’t like, making sure you’re staying safe, learning how to treat someone right, communicating how you want to be treated, and much more.

To establish ongoing conversations about these topics with youth, take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. For example, someone talks about sex and a relationship in a movie you’re watching. This is the perfect time to ask, “Hey, what do you think about that?”

With practice, talking about sex and sexuality can start to feel a part of normal conversation. You will do great!

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