Intimate conversations: How to talk to your kids about sex

Teens TAMI HOLLENDONNER REMEMBERS THE EXTENT OF HER SEX EDUCATION as a Catholic teen in the 1970s. "My mom and dad never told me about the birds and the bees. There was no talk about birth control or why not to have sex," says the 42-year-old mother of two from Darien, Illinois. "The message was that you didn't do it. It was pounded into you—God said you didn't do it, so you didn't."

Now the parent of a 13-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, Hollendonner wants to make sure her children learn a different message about sex and sexuality. She wants them to wait until they're mature enough to have sex, but she also wants them to understand that sex is beautiful with a person you love. She wants them to feel free to ask her about anything, to share anything, and to always know she's there for them no matter what mistakes they might make.

"I think parents should educate like crazy and eliminate the Catholic guilt part of it," she says. "And when kids want to talk about it, drop everything and talk."

But talking about sex and sexuality isn't easy for many parents. It's a buried landmine where morality and hormones can collide without warning and where the repercussions of a single act can be lifelong. As parents guide their teens through issues of sexuality, many find the process as difficult as their children do, especially in a society that makes kids feel like everyone's "doing it."

In fact, everyone's not doing it, but the statistics are still frightening for most parents. Fourteen percent of 13- to 16-year-olds are sexually active, according to a recent survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates, with that number rising to 41 percent for 15- and 16-year-olds.

In response to these realities, some parents and educators have focused on abstinence and just saying no. Others have emphasized talking to teens about the beauty of sexuality and the benefits of waiting until marriage to share this gift. Some experts advocate educating children about the physical dangers of teen sex—unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases—while others recommend parents talk about the emotional dangers of teen sex and the lifelong scars that can result.

But when it comes right down to it, some parents would prefer not to talk to their children about sexuality at all.

Let's talk about sex
"There's a lot of fear and dread about sex. I tell parents it's OK to respect sex because it is a power and it can be misused, but the misuse is usually from a deeper issue," says Bob Bartlett, author of Growing Toward Intimacy (Good Ground Press). "Sex is very much like a bottle of wine. You can open it and share it over dinner with your family, or you can drink the whole bottle, get in your car and drive, and end up harming somebody."

Contraception versus abstinence

Julie, a parent of two boys in Chicago, tried to teach her sons to wait until marriage to have sex. But when her 16-year-old became involved in a relationship that Julie thought might involve sex, she encouraged him to use contraception.

"I said, 'I think you should wait until you're married, but if you don't, you need to use condoms,'" Julie recalls.

When it comes to teens and sex, many parents are torn between wanting to teach abstinence while also wanting to protect their child if he or she does enter into a sexual relationship. And to make things even tougher, as the federal government encourages more and more abstinence-only education, research has begun to show that not talking about birth control can leave teens more vulnerable to pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases because they are unprepared for sexual intercourse.

A study comparing teens who pledged abstinence to teens who did not found almost similar rates of sexually transmitted diseases. The study also found that pledgers who end up having sex are less likely than others to use contraception.

Still, many Catholic teens like Hannah Gaddis, 15, of Wyoming find value in making a public commitment to chastity. "It gives me strength," Hannah says, "because I wear the ring on my wedding finger and even when I see a cute guy, I glance at my hand and remember this is the way I want to go. But I do have to work hard to train my thoughts, because it is hard."

Jason Evert, a Catholic chastity speaker, thinks providing contraception as an option for teens undermines the message of abstinence until marriage. "When parents put a girl on the pill, they're telling her they have no confidence in her to abstain," Evert says. "Set your standards high and clear: abstinence until marriage."

Janice C. agrees with that approach and tries to teach her two young teens to remain chaste until marriage. "Is it realistic today? I don't care if it's realistic; this is what I want and expect," she says. "The church's teachings are the way it should be. It's designed to give a sense of order. Otherwise everyone would be getting pregnant and whatever."

But when it comes to discussing birth control, Polly Rix finds things are not so black-and-white. Her parents never discussed birth control because, they told her, it wasn't necessary, since she wasn't allowed to have sex before marriage. When Rix did become sexually active in college, she found her family's attitudes toward birth control would alter her future.

"In my college mind I could justify having sex if I didn't use birth control because then I was only breaking one rule and not two," Rix says. "I ended up pregnant and married at 20."

Rix's daughter is now 21, her son is 12, and Rix and her husband want to make sure that if their children need information, it's available to them.

"An abstinence-only attitude is dangerous. I think parents should talk about abstinence as a choice and that it's the family expectation, especially while in high school," Rix says. But she has also provided her children with information regarding birth control.

Family therapist and author Michael Gurian agrees that educating teens about sex and sexuality has to include discussions about contraception. He tells the teens he works with, "You're going to make a lot of mistakes. You have to make some mistakes, but you also have to protect yourself. Practice abstinence as long as you can."

There's no easy answer to the abstinence-versus-contraception debate, but some educators do think there's a middle ground. When psychologist and author Tom Lickona talks to teens, he gives them the facts about birth control. He talks about the fact that many contraceptives have failure rates that result in pregnancy and don't protect against sexually transmitted diseases. "All these issues need to be laid out and addressed. Kids are interested in facts, and you have to give them this information," Lickona says.

Vilma Rodriguez also says it's important to give teens the information they need to make wise choices. In working with Hispanic youth in the Catholic Church, Rodriguez doesn't teach the teens about birth control because of its conflict with the church's teachings. But she also works with teens as a mental health professional, and she often finds herself giving those teens a different answer.

"I listen and guide them with abstinence but also birth control," she says. "I try to teach self-respect, but if they need more information, I give it to them."

-Liz DeCarlo

Helping teens learn to handle their sexuality responsibly begins with conversations from the time children are very young. The Princeton survey showed that 70 percent of teens have gotten a lot or some information about sex and sexual relationships from their parents, but many are still gleaning information—often inaccurate—from friends and the media.

"If parents don't address sexuality and if there's not education from the school or church, then there's a vacuum that the media or peers will fill. If the messages from parents aren't clear enough, then the bad messages have the upper hand," says Tom Lickona, co-author of Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decisions (Ave Maria Press). "Unless parents talk to their kids about the sacredness of their bodies and self-respect, kids will be eaten alive by the media."

Parents and educators sometimes make the mistake of limiting sex education discussions to the act of intercourse, but they should also focus on sexual activity within the context of sexuality, intimacy, and self-respect, says Father John Heagle, co-author of Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality (Crossroads).

For Catholic parents and teens, discussions should also include the message that sex is a gift from God, who asks them to commit to a chaste lifestyle, with reverence in relationships and an understanding of the joy of waiting for their future spouse to share that special relationship.

"A lot of these moral teachings a generation or two ago weren't presented in this positive way. There was an emphasis on the "don'ts' and not the "why,'" Lickona says. "As parents and teachers, we need to give kids a larger vision—not just to wait until marriage, but why, which is to express and deepen the couple's love and to create new life."

One way parents can do that is by modeling a healthy relationship and talking about the fact that people in good marriages find sex pleasurable. And while sex is innately pleasurable, it's important to have some self-discipline and learn that it's best done in the context of marriage.

"Just say no" is not enough
Teaching teens to exercise self-control and embrace a chaste lifestyle in today's highly sexualized society requires more than rigid rules. It's not just saying no, it's talking about what teens are saying yes to—that choosing chastity helps you find a partner who values you for who you are, takes the pressure off while you discover who you are, and protects you emotionally and physically until you have the maturity for this type of relationship.

Unfortunately, while some parishes and parents are teaching teens the reasons to say no to sex, society is deluging them with reasons to say yes. So parents have to bridge that gap between what the church's and the family's expectations are and the message teens receive from today's society.

"It's OK for parents to say, "We have different beliefs from some others. We believe this is very important and very special,'" Lickona says.

Matt Krumdick, now a teen ministry director at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naperville, Illinois, remembers his parents talking about their expectations of chastity when he was a teen. While he admits that their expectations and rules kept him out of difficult situations, he acknowledges he sometimes felt angry that their expectations were so out of sync with the world around him.

"I remember thinking when I was 18, "Why, Lord, am I a virgin? Why have I been singled out for this cross to bear?'" Krumdick says with a laugh. "Then I decided that maybe God had a plan. After that, I decided to commit myself to waiting for marriage, and then it became a much more pronounced part of myself and who I was."

As a youth minister, Krumdick tries to use his experiences to understand the challenges today's teens face on issues of sexuality. He good-naturedly shares his roundabout way of committing to a chaste life and the joy he found with his wife by waiting for marriage. Discussions with the teens include the realities of trying to live a chaste life in a culture that encourages teens to have sex.

It's important for parents to share not only their expectations but also an understanding that teens face constant challenges in today's society. By talking about real situations and discussing ways to handle them, parents can equip teens with the knowledge and understanding to make wise choices even when parents aren't around.

"The most important message to give kids is one of honesty. There's nothing I don't talk to my daughters about," says Michael Gurian, father of two and author of The Wonder of Boys (Tarcher/Putnam) and The Wonder of Girls (Pocket Books). "I talk to them about the media and pornography and this industry of guys who want and need sex to connect, and then you have women who use it to make a living and that's been going on since the beginning of time. If you just say it's wrong, at 14 or 15 kids want to know why. We have to explain what we know to be real: These two cultures are exploiting each other to satisfy a need, but you, my 14-year-old, still need to make a decision to keep yourself out of this."

Here come the hormones
In addition to talking about the messages from the media and society, parents also need to acknowledge the biological changes teens experience and how these new feelings fit into the world around them.

Gurian talks to the kids about how emotions and biology are or aren't linked. He teaches adolescent boys that they might think they're in love and want to have sex, but it's often more from testosterone than from real love. He also teaches boys that during sex, girls will release oxytocin and feel like they're in love, because oxytocin is a bonding hormone.

Mary Gaddis, a mother of eight children between the ages of 5 months and 16, uses biology as a starting point in conversations with her children. As their bodies began changing, Gaddis and her husband discussed sexuality with them. They always put the discussions of sex into the larger context of sexuality and life choices. And they've emphasized the joys of sex between a married couple. "We tell them it's a wonderful and fun part of marriage. We're not prudes. We present it as a joyous part of marriage."

But Gaddis, a member of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Casper, Wyoming, also acknowledges that no matter how much children are taught about the sanctity of sexuality, hormones can counteract parents' teachings.

"We've based our discussions on the church's teachings, but I also want to teach them things to protect them," Gaddis says. "We've talked about hormones. We've given them dating guidelines."

Teaching teens to use their knowledge of hormones, sex, and sexuality to draw the lines themselves and to think beyond the moment is exactly what Gurian recommends to parents in dealing with issues of sexuality.

"In Catholicism kids often get rigid rules. I'm trying to link nature with a deep sense of the mystery and sanctity of sex," he says.

Understanding intimacy
Often teens and adults mistake sex for intimacy. In their desire to feel closeness or to find an intimacy that may be lacking at home, teens may turn to sexual relationships to fill the void.

For those without emotional intimacy in their lives, sexual intimacy often becomes a replacement and a way to confirm a relationship. But sexual intimacy in a relationship without a strong emotional connection can prevent the relationship from moving to a deeper, more spiritual level.

When 17-year-old Elena's parents were divorcing and she and her siblings were split between their parents, Elena turned to a series of romantic relationships to fill the void in her heart.

"I had a couple of boyfriends I just clung to," Elena says. "They made me feel loved when everything was crazy at home."

Because many people equate sex with intimacy, not enough emphasis is being placed on teaching children about relationships and emotional intimacy, says Bartlett. He notes that many Bible stories carry Jesus' message of intimacy without sex.

"The woman at the well story is incredibly intimate. She shares her life with Jesus and even challenges him. When he starts talking to her, he creates an emotional intimacy," Bartlett says. "There are all kinds of stories about Jesus as being intimate."

One way to teach emotional intimacy to children is to acknowledge that it's already a part of their lives. Children and teens share intimate relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, and friends. When a teen spends hours on the phone listening to her best friend cry about a bad day, she's involved in an intimate relationship. The next step is to transfer that into the dating relationship, to show teens the powerful connections that are possible without sex.

Vilma Rodriguez, a young adult educator and therapist, was teaching a class for Hispanic Catholic young adults in Houston called Fe y Vida (Faith and Life) when a student asked if it's really possible to have a special relationship without sex.

"I said yes, that's what we call noviazgo. It's a very nice relationship; you can kiss, hold hands, be a little more affectionate, without having sex," Rodriguez says. "I tell them this is good because you'll learn about this person and become close friends with them. This is the best foundation for any marriage."

Rodriguez also teaches teens about dignity and self-respect in intimacy and sexuality, characteristics that are often in short supply as teens navigate a new world of bodily changes, boy-girl relationships, and peer pressure. She teaches girls that they have the power to make decisions and that they are a creation of God, so saying no is a way to respect God's gift. She teaches boys to respect themselves and the girls they are involved with and who may someday be their life partner.

But teaching children self-respect can't just begin when they become teenagers; it has to be a part of family life from the moment of each child's birth. Parents teach self-respect to their children when they address their children with the same respect they would use to address their boss or any other important person in their life, Rodriguez says.

That kind of dignity and respect for the child by the parent is what teaches children the skills and ability to respect themselves and others and to make choices that reflect that vision of themselves.

"Dignity is learned when parents teach children to respect everybody else, not just because of their authority or power but because other people have dignity, too, regardless of age or status," Rodriguez says. "Especially when a child is disciplined, no matter what the circumstances, his or her dignity must remain intact. A child that is loved and respected will be better equipped to face good and bad times in different environments."

Efforts to instill self-respect are even more important as children begin to separate from their family and find their place in the world around them. Middle-school-aged children often have a very difficult time with self-esteem and self-respect, as they adjust to new bodies that often aren't growing in the way they'd like. It's a time when some teens may find themselves believing that engaging in sexual activity will make them more popular or more worthwhile.

"You've got to keep holding the mirror up and tell them, I'm good because of who I am not what I do. I'm naturally good," Bartlett says. "They're not secure with themselves, so you have to love them until they love themselves."

In the trenches
Polly Rix has been through the middle-school years with her daughter Ashley, now 21, but she's in the midst of them with her son Alex, 12.

So far the discussions have been about respecting his body, with some discussions planned about respecting girls when he's ready for boy-girl relationships. As her children handle the social challenges of middle school and college, Rix and her husband have tried to create an atmosphere where their children feel respected and loved enough to come to them with any questions about sexuality.

"If your kids have a place where they feel safe and accepted, where family time is expected and you watch movies and play games together, then I think they don't feel the need to go off and get attention from someone else," Rix says.

Often those teens who seek out sexual attention are trying to fill a void, and until parents dig deep enough to find what's missing in a child's life, just saying no to sexual activity will not be enough.

"It has to go deeper than just saying no, because if you prevented every kid in America from having sex, the problem would just come out in another way, because usually sex is a symptom," Bartlett says. "And for kids who are already sexually active, I want them to understand that sex isn't really what they were looking for. What they were looking for was intimacy. I tell them, you're not making love, you're having sex."

Getting back on track
Part of parenting is helping children muddle through their mistakes and creating an environment of forgiveness. Teens who have already chosen to become sexually active need to have an adult available who can help them work through the consequences of those actions.

Rather than condemning sexually active teens, Bartlett asks them what they've learned. He tries to help them figure out for themselves what they were looking for in a sexual relationship and how they can fill that emotional need without sex. Kids make mistakes, and what they usually need most is forgiveness and compassion so that they can move on with the ability to make better choices.

"Jesus forgave those with sexual sins. Part of the reason he did this is that he knew they were looking for something good and went about it the wrong way," Bartlett says. Often teens who have made mistakes already are suffering from the emotional or physical damage and need guidance to get their life back on track.

"Parents need to combine their values with compassion and communication. Just to give them rules won't help," says Heagle. "If I were a parent I'd say, "I don't want you to have a sexual relationship until you're out of high school. I want to ask you to try to live up to that.' I wouldn't have any hesitation about telling my child that, but I also wouldn't tell them I'll kick them out if they're pregnant."

Setting expectations but creating an environment of forgiveness for mistakes helps teach children self-control rather than trying to control them. This allows them to make decisions and teaches them the consequences of those decisions. Part of this is also teaching them that the consequences are a result of their own decisions and not a punishment from an authority figure like their parents or God, Rodriguez explains.

Parent Janice C. of California (who asked that her last name not be used) has talked to her two children, 12 and 13 years old, about choices and consequences. Both children are adopted and were born to teen mothers, so Janice talks openly with them about sexual situations and the long-term consequences of the choices they may make. She wants them to learn to handle adolescent situations and to make the right choices based on their own knowledge and morality.

"You can tell them what's right all the time, but as soon as they're at someone else's house, it's up to them and you hope they heard you," says Janice. "I've taught them to try not to get themselves into a situation they can't handle, but if they do they can call me. A couple times Emma has called me from another room at someone's house and asked me to come and get her. I've taught them to say no if they don't want to do something or if it's uncomfortable."

Teaching teens self-control and consequences allows them to move away from their family and into adulthood with the ability to make thoughtful decisions and take responsibility for their actions. And teaching them self-control within the context of today's society and their family's morality gives teens the wisdom and judgment to handle adolescent twists and turns with a strong spirit.

"You have to trust human love and communicate. Middle school and high school is equivalent to holding our babies when they were 6 months old. This is how we protect them now, by communicating life stories to them, with our morality involved and with realism," Gurian says. "Ultimately, we have to trust in the ability of a child who is well-loved to love well.

Liz DeCarlo is a freelance writer in Darien, Illinois. This article appeared in the October 2005 (Volume 70, Number 10; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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