Why Parents Fear ‘The Talk’ and What Kids Want Out of It

Two recent studies find that parents are afraid of messing up, but teens want guidance and frank information about sex.

[Photo: Older woman with accusing face holds condom, and teenage girl rolls eyes, looking frustrated.]
Teens want to have open and informative exchange with parents about sex, not vague or accusatory conversations. Shutterstock

When Rhonda Johnson was growing up, her mom didn’t talk to her about sex, and the education offered in her Boston school emphasized abstinence.

Rhonda, now a 46-year-old mother of three, finds that not much has changed. As a result of her frustration around school-based sexuality education, she took an active role in educating her 22-year-old daughter Mariah and her other children.

“Your sex ed teachers are gonna lie to you,” Rhonda told them. “Every time you get out of sex ed, tell me what they said. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Not all parents are this forthcoming. Cultural depictions of “the sex talk” show a rite of passage that both parents and their teens dread. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“If they can come to you and ask you, it’s really not hard,” said Rhonda. “Everybody has sex. If you don’t act like it’s a taboo subject, your kids won’t act like it’s a taboo subject.”

Two recent studies indicate that kids are hungry to hear this information from their parents, even when they appear embarrassed by the subject matter. Unfortunately, many parents are just as embarrassed and tend to fear the sexuality conversations they should be having with their kids.

“Parents want to help, and they want to do it right,” said Katrina L. Pariera, an assistant professor of communication at the George Washington University, and the author of a paper on the barriers to parent-child sexual communication. This fear of failure often paralyzes parents, leading them to avoid those conversations entirely.

Amanda Holman, an assistant professor of communication studies at Creighton University and the lead author of another study about adolescents’ perceptions of the sex-related conversations they had with their parents, also found this fear of failure to be common.

“There’s a fear of not seeming like a competent adult who knows things,” Holman said. “There’s also the fear that their kids are not going to listen to them and not see them as a credible source. Parents are worried about messing up. They are so afraid to mess up and say something wrong. So they put off the conversation, and then it’s too late and the conversation comes out of nowhere.”

Contrary to parents’ most terrified imaginings, some of them are actually doing a pretty decent job talking to their kids about sex. According to a December 2017 study also by Pariera, 20 percent of teens found their parents to be open and honest, and they found the conversations they had with parents to be helpful. And a quarter of survey respondents said their parents showed no weaknesses when it came to talking to them about sex. These numbers are heartening.

But the majority of teens still find these conversations lacking, which is a shame. Good communication can have lasting impacts, and inadequate sex education—both at home and in school—can have a number of negative repercussions.

In a child’s early years, from birth through toddlerhood, sharing basic information with them—such as the proper names for their body parts—helps them develop a healthy and more positive body image. It can also give them tools to recognize and potentially prevent childhood sexual abuse. Later on, positive conversations around sexuality correlate to delayed onset of sexual activity, greater condom use, and a reduction in some forms of sexual risk-taking.

“When these conversations don’t occur in families, it can set up a broken foundation when it comes to sexual literacy,” said Holman. “The child doesn’t know where their parents stand on sexual health or education or relationships, so there’s confusion. Who knows what sex ed they’ll get in school or from doctors? A lot of the time, the knowledge they’ll grab onto will be from their peers. Parents can act as buffers to what their peers are saying. If children don’t feel like they can go to parents for their perspective, they’re more likely to engage in risky behavior.”

How teens wish parents would talk to them about sex

When it comes to Holman and Pariera’s research, there are a number of common threads. First and foremost, teens just want their parents to treat them with respect and to approach sexual conversations as actual conversations rather than as directives from on high. Unsurprisingly, teens appreciate being listened to and taken seriously.

“See your child as a young adult who’s going to be making these decisions,” said Holman. “Give them the space to ask questions. Try to give them the best foundation possible. The sex conversation is a conversation, and it’s with multiple people with multiple goals and feelings and thoughts and experience.

“And that’s what makes it so difficult. Because parents have the experience of life, and adolescents know the reality of what’s going through their world right now. If parents can just take the time to get to know what’s going on with their kids when it comes to difficult topics, it’s going to make those difficult conversations easier. If you can come to your child and have these thoughtful, meaningful conversations even if you don’t know all the info, they can then go off to make their own decisions.”

Pariera added: “Instead of saying, ‘You can’t have boys in your room. End of discussion,’ explain the thinking behind the rules you put in place.” Pariera also recommends asking kids what they know—and what they want to know, allowing them to guide the conversation. “Questions are the place to start because you don’t always know what your kid knows.”

Holman and her fellow researchers also pinpointed six different conversation types that occur between parents and teens. Safety talks focus on concrete tips for preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Underdeveloped conversations are those in which parents remain vague around many aspects of sex or lean heavily on pamphlets versus engaging in a more interactive discussion. Comprehensive talks cover far more ground than just safety, touching upon puberty, sex acts, relationships, emotions, and pressure. Warning or threat-based conversations emphasize the negative repercussions of sexual activity. Waiting-focused conversations are about the importance of abstinence. And the sixth and final type of conversation is the conversation that never happens at all.

When it came down to it, teens craved the more comprehensive conversations, the ones that gave them concrete tips around all aspects of sexuality and left them feeling able to ask more questions. The safety talks proved to be effective at reducing risky behaviors, but the comprehensive talks took adolescents’ needs into account and were more welcoming than discussions in which parents acted judgmental or dodged questions.

Above all, it’s important to say something instead of nothing. “I have all these hopes and dreams for my kids,” said Holman, mentioning safer sex practices, and whether or not they’ll wait for marriage before having sex. “But I also know they’re going to go through a lot, and I want them to be prepared and have all the safety tools they need. I want to convey: ‘Here are the choices I hope you make. I hope you make good choices, but you can always come to me with questions or fears, even if you feel you’ve messed up, because we’ve all done it.'”

In the end, parents pass their values along to their kids in these talks. And these values will shape how they make future decisions. “Young people tend to carry those values on,” said Pariera. “The messages they receive in the media and at school are counterbalanced by what you’re telling them.”

And if you’re still nervous about bringing up s-e-x? “The conversation isn’t as awkward as you think it is,” said Mariah. “So if you don’t make it that way, it won’t be that way. Crack a joke. Share a story. Your kids will appreciate it after you say it.”

Perhaps it is the openness and honesty with which her mom, Rhonda, treated sex that led Mariah to become an activist herself. She’s now a member of the Young Women of Color Leadership Council and a peer sex educator. “My mom never talked about sex like it was boring or gross,” said Mariah. “She talked about it like it was a fun activity.”