“Let’s Talk”: Ten tips for talking with teens about relationships and sexual health

teen couple walking and holding hands outside, let’s talk, ten tips for talking with teens about relationships and sexual health, gender-inclusive language, between us, how to talk to teens about sex, Janna Gewirtz O’Brien

Sexual development is a natural part of adolescence. Beyond the physical changes in their bodies, adolescents begin to feel “crushes” and sexual attraction, and many engage in sexual behaviors. In 2019, more than one in every three eleventh graders in Minnesota reported having had sex before. In today’s increasingly digital world, adolescents hear and see messages all the time about what relationships and sex should look like. As parents, you can help your adolescents make sense of these messages, understand their bodies, and make decisions that align with their goals and values.

For “Let’s Talk” month, we will share ten tips for conversations with teens about sexual health:

  1. Start talking early.
    Begin having conversations with teens early in a way that is appropriate for your adolescent’s development. When adolescents begin to show signs of puberty, speak with them openly about how their bodies are changing. When you hear about crushes or about relationships between peers, listen and remain open to answering questions. Talking about sex and relationships should not just be one conversation. It should be something you talk about over time.
  1. Listen.
    Start by listening more than talking. Hear out their questions and listen to their experiences. Remember, if you are talking, you are not listening. Let them finish the idea they are trying to communicate without interrupting.
  1. Validate their experiences.
    Although you may feel that teenage love is not serious, romantic feelings during adolescence can be very strong. Do not dismiss “love.” Recognize that romantic and sexual feelings and relationships are, in fact, an important part of normal adolescent development. Focus on their feelings instead of just trying to make things better for them.
  1. Affirm who they are.
    More than one in five Minnesota high school students identify as something other than heterosexual (straight). It’s important not to make assumptions when you have conversations about sex. Use gender-inclusive language (like “crushes” or “anyone you’re interested in?”), rather than assuming that they are attracted to the opposite sex (e.g. terms like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”). When parents show their children that they affirm them for who they are, they create safe spaces for open and honest conversations about their sexual health and well-being. For all adolescents, remember to focus on their strengths and show them that you love them no matter what.
  1. Empower your teen with accurate information.
    Support them with accurate information about sex, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to have sex and, if they do, how to do it safely. If you think you don’t have the information you need, look for it together! Emphasize the importance of communicating with their partners about what they feel comfortable with and how they will be safe during sexual encounters. If they are thinking about having sex or have had sex before, encourage consistent condom use to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and ensure that they know how to prevent pregnancy. Remind them that, if they do have unprotected sex, the “morning after pill” can be used for up to three days later to prevent a pregnancy and can be accessed over the counter at your local pharmacy. Learn more about options for preventing STIs and pregnancy.
  1. Describe (and if possible, model) healthy relationships and communication.
    Adolescence is a key time for teens to learn what healthy, supportive, and safe relationships look like. This includes respect, communication, and trust. Model these relationship skills if you can and recognize them when you see them depicted in the media. Also, point out signs of unhealthy relationships when you see them in the media, such as controlling behaviors, yelling, and abuse. Discuss the meaning of consent and remind them that they have the right to stop any activity that they feel uncomfortable with at ANY TIME. Check out more teen-friendly resources about healthy relationships.
  2. Avoid focusing only on risk.
    It is often tempting for parents to focus on the risky parts of romantic and sexual relationships. Though it is important for parents and teens to understand these risks, it is also important to recognize that relationships and sex are supposed to be positive experiences. Sex should not be painful and should never be forced. Help your teen have realistic expectations and set limits that align with who they are and what they want in a way that feels safe and comfortable for them.
  1. Discuss online safety.
    Teens are now navigating romantic and sexual relationships on and off-line. Talk to your teen about how to navigate these relationships safely. Discourage “sexting”, sending sexual messages or images, even with trusted partners. These can be rapidly spread and leave a long-lasting “digital footprint”. Recommend that they avoid relationships with people they do not know in person. There are many reports of predatory adults meeting adolescents online. Finally, help them differentiate between media depictions of relationships and sex with reality. Pornography and other forms of media often depict sex and relationships in unrealistic and unsafe ways.
  1. Create safe, non-judgmental spaces.
    Let them know that you will be there to talk and help them answer any questions they have in a non-judgmental manner. If possible, ensure that they will not get in trouble for asking questions about sexual health or reaching out for help if they need support or feel unsafe in some way. Remind them that you are a resource and ally. Some parents use a “code word” that the adolescent can text or call their parent with if they are at a party or in a social situation in which they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. If you learn that your teen has done something that you feel was wrong or a mistake, avoid judgmental words (like “disappointing” or “trouble”). Instead, help your teen understand the potential consequences of their decision and what they could do differently next time.
  1. Ensure that they have a network of resources and people to support them.
    Ensure that your adolescent has all the resources and support they need to make decisions that work for them.
  • Help them build their own toolkit of resources with reliable information about sexual health (see below for some ideas).
  • If they are sexually active, make sure that they have access to what they need to be able to make safe and healthy decisions. This includes condoms, access to the morning-after pill if they need it, and other ways of preventing pregnancy.
  • Help them identify several supportive adults that they can talk to when questions arise about sexual health.
  • Remind them that their healthcare provider can provide them with confidential (private) care and help answer any questions they may have. Teach them how to reach their healthcare team through MyChart or by phone.

These conversations can be tough, but they are essential for supporting teens in engaging in healthy relationships and making healthy sexual decisions.

For more information, check out these resources:

About the author

Janna Gerwirtz O'Brien, MDJanna Gewirtz O’Brien, MD, FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and adolescent medicine fellow at the University of Minnesota. She provides adolescent health care at Hennepin Healthcare at the Clinic & Specialty Center and provides healthcare in school-based health centers and in shelters for youth experiencing homelessness. She leads research focused on optimizing the equitable delivery of adolescent health services and addressing the health needs of youth experiencing homelessness. She also serves on the executive board of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is an active member of the Minnesota School-based Health Alliance.

This article was written in collaboration with Hennepin Healthcare’s Between Us program. Between Us, formerly Henne-Teen is a grant-funded program from the Minnesota Department of Health that creates access to confidential reproductive healthcare within Hennepin Healthcare’s Primary Care Community Clinics for youth and young adults up to 26. Because of Minnesota’s Minor Consent Law, teens have the right to confidential care for certain kinds of care. Between Us is our effort to transform our primary care world into a more teen-friendly environment, welcoming teens and their parents, while also providing confidential care when needed.

Parents can find resources to support them in raising an adolescent on the Between Us web pages.

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