Talking to teens about the hard stuff

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It’s not easy talking about sex, drugs, violence and other difficult topics with our teens. But it’s something we have to do in order to build a support system based on trust and communication. Here are tips for talking with teens about the issues and themes they encounter as young adults.

Timing is everything

Know that teens will catch us off guard when they decide to ask questions about sex or other “tough” topics. Resist the urge to flee. Try saying, “I’m glad you came to me with that question.” This gives us time to think of a response, and will let teens know they can come to parents for advice. It’s important to answer the question right away, rather than put off a teen by saying something like – “you’re too young to know that!” Chances are, the subject has already come up at school and they’re already getting “advice” from their friends. When teens ask questions, look at it as an opportunity to help them learn by sharing our thoughts.

Practice makes perfect

As parents, anticipation is our best friend. Anticipate what teens’ questions may have about sex, drugs or alcohol. Then, think about your responses ahead of time. What to say? It’s different for each family, but become familiar with typical questions and behaviors that occur during the teen years. Do a little digging around popular teen websites to find out what’s popular.

Is it hot in here?

If you’re feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable about a question your teen asks, say so. Acknowledging your own discomfort allows your kids to acknowledge theirs – and may make everyone feel a little less awkward all around. It’s also ok for parents to set limits. For example, you do not have to give specific answers about your own teen behaviors.

Stick to the basics

Teens know hundreds of names for various body parts that would make us blush. We shouldn’t try to be cool by using these “hip” terms when talking to teens about tough topics. It won’t work. Stick with specific and correct terminology that everyone understands.

Initiate the conversation

When our kids were young, we didn’t wait until they asked if they should look both ways before crossing a busy street. We taught them. Now it’s our job to teach teens how to grow into adulthood by educating them about possible risks – sex, drugs, racial profiling and more. Decide what is important for your teens to know, and then teach them early and often. Use everyday, naturally occurring events to initiate conversations with teens about tough topics. For example, books, news articles and TV shows can be good discussion starters.

Watch for hidden meaning

Be aware of the “question behind the question.” For example, a question such as “Does this look ok?” may often be a teen’s first attempt at trying to solve a specific problem such as feeling “normal”.

Keep your radar up and trust your instincts – if you sense your teen is dealing with a larger issue, you’re probably right.

Be clear about your values

This doesn’t mean, “be judgmental.” Teens (although they will protest) want to and should know their family’s values around sexual issues, alcohol use, dating, etc. They also should know that their opinions and feelings are respected.

Research the sources

Know what is taught about teen issues in your schools, churches, temples and youth groups – and use this information as a way to talk with teens about your family’s values. Are topics on sexuality, drug and alcohol use covered? Are they talking about depression, racial profiling or gang violence in these programs? If not, you should be filling in the holes as you see fit.

Act now

Better “too much, too soon” than “too little, too late.” Talking to teens about tough issues in an open, honest and loving manner shouldn’t cause fear, nor does it lead to experimentation among teens. Teens are hearing about sex, drugs and violence everywhere else. They deserve to hear it from us.



Adapted from Kids Need to Know, Family Sexual Education, Eugene, OR, and Now What Do I Do” by Robert Selverstone, Ph.D.

About Between Us

Between Us is a grant-funded program from the Minnesota Department of Health that creates access to confidential reproductive healthcare for youth and young adults who receive their care at Hennepin Healthcare. Teens have the right to confidentiality for certain kinds of care under Minnesota’s Minor Consent Law. Between Us works to transform primary care into a more teen-friendly environment, welcoming teens and their parents, while also providing confidential care when needed.

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