Say What? Talking with Teens about Sex

06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's a glorious spring evening, and you see two figures off in the distance, romancing. How sweet. That is, until you realize that one of them is your teenager. And, you notice what's happening is more than a simple kiss. Now what?

Or, there you are, driving home at the end of a long day, or zoning out while chopping food in the kitchen, and your fourteen-year-old casually informs you that, "two kids in my class had sex last weekend." What now?

First, try not to embarrass your teenager (or yourself), and avoid running a red light or cutting off your finger. Once you survive the first shock, you'll see that it's time to talk. This isn't about having "the talk," rather, this about mindful dialogue. Even if you break out in a cold sweat, you can give your teen a priceless gift by staying present with the topic, noticing your own response and focusing your attention on your teen.

Talking about "it" at home is crucial because kids who dialogue with their parents about sex, may well be less likely to "do it" before they're ready. Why? Because experience shows that speaking about "it" at home -- safely, openly and directly -- can build teens' capacity to know their own mind and communicate accordingly.

If they can talk about "it" with you, their parent, they have an advantage when it comes to communicating with a potential sexual partner. Practicing saying "no" at home can help them refuse a peer. Likewise, speaking honestly with parents about healthy choices, sexual risk-taking and risk reduction prepares teens who say "yes" to insist "but only if we have protection."

It's clear that teens' bodies are biologically primed for sexual exploration. It's equally as clear that their brains tend to be slower to mature. This isn't their fault and shaming them about their intellectual, emotional or spiritual lag-time can easily backfire. In contrast, teaching teens how to recognize when their body and emotions move faster than their rational thoughts -- and how to manage the discrepancy -- is constructive.

I'm talking about teaching mindfulness to teens as the basis for all of these crucial decision-making skills. We've got to teach them how to pay attention to what's happening, in -- and around them, in the current moment (and each successive current moment). The more self-aware they become, the better their chances of noticing what's going on when their social interactions heat up. This improves their likelihood making healthy choices about "doing it."

If this idea intrigues you, then the first step is cultivating mindfulness yourself. In other words, as a parent, you can start training your attention on what's happening right now in- and around you. A common, secular, approach involves shifting your awareness to the experience of breathing. Just take a couple minutes in safe quiet space, and focus your mind on the in and out movement of the breath. When your attention wanders (as it almost always will), just refocus on your breath. That's all you need to do as you begin to practice mindfulness, and doing this for a few minutes each day can help reduce your stress and increase your self-awareness.

The only way to become familiar with the process is through practice, and developing familiarity is the key to applying mindfulness in the midst of emotionally loaded conversations -- such as when you, as a parent, find yourself talking with your teen (unexpectedly) about sex. The same maxim also applies to teens. They too need to practice so that their mindfulness become second nature, and they naturally remain present in the midst of potentially risky situations. Being there is the point, whether or not they're doing -- or not doing -- "it".

Teens are already aware that sex is part of life. They also assume that, by definition, most parents have "done it" (well . . . that is, at least once). As parents, we have to accept that the vast majority of our children will eventually have sex. We hope that this happens when they are emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically ready. And, fortunately, we can do more than simply hope. We can communicate with them. We can teach them mindfulness. We can model healthy behaviors.

Of course, teens will make mistakes just as we did, and as much as wish otherwise, they might even make some of the same mistakes already familiar to us. But, if come from a family in which sex wasn't discussed constructively (like most of today's parents) you can rectify one parental mistake by making sure that your teens don't come of age in silence. Take a breath and talk with them, and then keep on breathing while you're talking, starting now.