Tips for Talking to Your Kids about Sex: The High School Years
MARCH 11, 2020
It is helpful for older teens to understand and admire the ideal of sexual integrity. Call them to greatness, while also setting down clear guidelines of what is and isn’t permitted in their opposite-sex friendships while they are under your care. We advise parents to initiate advanced conversations with both sons and daughters about how sexual desire is tricky to control, but absolutely manageable with time-tested strategies. Teens should also be taught about the dangers—and avoidability—of STDs, and encouraged to show compassion and empathy towards peers who don’t know how to live sexual integrity. Finally, let your teens know that you have great confidence in their ability to live out sexual integrity and practice true love and authentic friendship. But even if they make a mistake, they can always make amends, rectify, and start again.
Once in high school, many young people desire to start dating or having romantic relationships. It’s good for parents to offer teens a more advanced understanding of their bodies so they can navigate wisely. At this stage, talking about their sexuality can be especially awkward (for both of you!), so you might want to talk to them while doing another activity, like driving or going on a walk, so that you are not forced into continuous eye contact. You can start the discussion with respect, confidence, and goodwill by saying, “Hey, I know that you already know a lot about this stuff, but it’s important. And now that you are older, I want you to be better informed.”
Sexual Integrity. It is helpful for older teens to understand the concept of sexual integrity. Start with a question about integrity in general: “When I say that someone has integrity, what does that mean? . . . Yes, integrity is something an upright person has, a person who is honest, who isn’t two-faced, who doesn’t cheat. The person with integrity does the right thing even when no one is looking.” Then transition into the intimate topic: “Sexual integrity is about being upright and honest with your sexual powers. People with sexual integrity are serious about living the truth that sex says, ‘I give myself entirely to you for life.’ They do not use or manipulate another person by enjoying sexual pleasure without making that lifelong commitment, because that is two-faced. So they save that total gift of self for marriage, even if it’s difficult to wait.” Finally, expand the understanding of sexual integrity as not just a choice to abstain but a lifestyle of dignity: “Sexual integrity, then, is also about strength of character, and about wholeness, about living in the unity of mind and body. People with sexual integrity have practiced strengthening their moral muscles so they can direct their sexual energy toward that one, beautiful beloved in a lifelong bond of self-giving.”
Ground Rules for Dating. Although they desire freedom to make their own choices, teens need authority in their lives, too. Create clear guidelines and policies of what is and isn’t permitted in their opposite-sex friendship habits while they are under your care—preferably before romance enters the picture, so the rules are not perceived to be about their particular love interest. Some parents permit group dates only for the first couple of years of high school, allowing a bit more independence with each passing year. Other parents say, “Only dates to dances or big events, and only if your grades and extracurriculars are going well.” Others say, “Once you get a job and can pay for your dates, you can date.” Other options include no dating until after graduation, no exclusive (boyfriend/girlfriend) dating, and simply taking each situation as it comes. Whatever your preferences, communicate them to your teens so they have a clear understanding of what your expectations are on the matter. Remember to include, “If you don’t feel ready to date, that’s fine too.”
Here are some specific policies that our CanaVox families have found useful:
1) The Four-Hour Rule: A teen should be able to accomplish all the socializing he needs in four hours. Instead of these long “drop me off at 4 and pick me up at 11” hangouts, teens should figure out how to use their time wisely.
2) No Bedroom Hangouts: Your teen should plan dates for public settings, or within view of a chaperone or other people. Going over to a home with some responsible adults present is fine, but no bedrooms, unsupervised basements, etc.
3) Clear Communication about the Date Plan. Always have your teens tell you whom they will be with, what they will be doing, where they are going, and when they will be home. If a party or get-together is planned at someone’s house, call the hosting parent to verify that at least one adult will be present to supervise and that there will be no alcohol available to the teens. Make the effort to enforce a reasonable curfew. If your teen is running late, she should know to call home to alert you.
4) A pre-established SOS passcode for kids to text or call home for help if they are uncomfortable and need to be picked up right away, no questions asked. Reasonable conversations can follow the next day.
An Advanced Understanding of Their Bodies. If a teen begins to be romantically involved with someone, it is wise for the same-sex parent to have some more advanced conversations about how sexual desire is tricky to control. (If the same-sex parent is unavailable, the opposite-sex parent can definitely address these topics.) If your teen doesn’t become romantically involved with someone while in your home full-time, it is still worth having the following conversations before they move out.
Fathers: Help your son distinguish between intentional and unintentional arousal. Reassure him and also call him to greatness: “Look son, sexual desire is good and natural. And unintentional arousal is not bad. It’s a sign that your body is working as it should. Night-time emissions or unexpected erections are normal. But being a man means taking responsibility for your natural attraction so that it doesn’t impede true love by dominating you or leading you to abuse someone else. This happens when you intentionally seek to arouse, entertain, and gratify your sexual desire in the wrong context, outside of marriage. Sexual desire is like fire: great when properly directed, but hazardous when it isn’t.”
Give your teenage son strategies and practices to help him manage his sexual desire and exercise self-restraint in healthy ways. Here are a few time-tested tips that men have found useful:
1) “Regular strenuous exercise will help reduce some of your sexual energy.”
2) “Learn to avoid looking at women in ways that might provoke you. Substitute sexual thoughts for other interesting thoughts/topics so that you can redirect your attention to a better place.”
3) “When you are interacting with a young woman, think about your sister, your mother, or some other woman you respect and care for, and then think about how you would like that someone to be treated. You can also imagine your future wife. Or think about the many women who are abused and taken advantage of, and how you can be part of the solution. Real men protect women. Sexual self-restraint is a big part of that, and it all begins in the mind.”
4) “Be upfront with your girlfriend about your desire to avoid going too far. She will appreciate your honesty and probably feel respected. There is no shame, and much strength, in setting limits. There’s no need to be neurotic; have a good sense of humor about how difficult it is to keep sexual boundaries.”
5) “Avoid being alone together in dicey situations, like staying up late to watch a movie after her parents go to bed. Watch your time alone in the car; don’t park in an isolated area, because things can heat up very quickly. Be ready with some good ways to avoid these types of situations. Crack a joke, even—so it won’t be too awkward. But the best defense is a good offense: planning and clear communication.”
Mothers: Tell your daughter that biologically, young men are usually much more interested in sex than young women are. Emphasize that this is normal: “At this age, guys are almost a different creature. They are very prone to arousal, sometimes out of the blue.” Deliberate attempts to arouse a guy should be distinguished from unintentional arousal, which is not her fault at all. Let her know that this arousal often begins with what a guy sees, and it increases with certain kinds of touch. So, if she is deliberately enticing or stimulating a guy, this is a wrongful use of her sexual power.
You can draw attention to her female biology: “Do you notice that at certain times of the month you might be much more distracted by sexual thoughts? You see, our bodies are wired to reproduce, so the days of the month when we are fertile, we are much more susceptible to sexual and romantic thoughts. This means that you need to be even more careful to avoid tricky situations during those times of the month. Young men, however, are always fertile, so it is like that for them all the time. Can you imagine?! But that also means that we have great power as women to help guys stay in control of their bodies, by not arousing them with revealing clothing or inappropriate gestures or touches. While you are never to blame for someone else’s bad choices, neither do you want to manipulate guys just to get attention or try to control them.”
Encourage her to have good strategies for avoiding potentially steamy situations, and to imagine how she can show a good sense of humor when she has to say “no” to a boyfriend, so as to provide some levity in awkward moments: “Whoa, tiger, I don’t think that’s a good idea!” Tell her also that it’s well within her right to be firm and strong with pushy guys who want to cross a line: “Go where? I don’t think so. Please take me home.” The better guys out there will learn to esteem and admire her for her self-respect. Young women need to have a plan in place for how far they want to go physically, and to communicate it clearly, or they can tend to just follow a boyfriend’s lead: “Having good boundaries and self-restraint when you experience sexual desire is all part of the development of sexual strength and integrity, which will help you establish a great relationship with the right person. True love takes guts, courage, and virtue.” You can also remind her that her desires (and his) aren’t inherently bad: “Sexual tension in a serious dating relationship can be a good challenge. It can be a very healthy part of dating, because you learn to communicate your needs and grow in fortitude together. You strengthen your moral muscles by exercising restraint for one another’s good.”
Physical Touches That Arouse. We live in times when teens are surrounded by sexual excess. Therefore, you may choose to be more direct than your own parents were about some types of foreplay that your teen should avoid. Many teens will go right up to the boundary that is given to them, so go ahead and explain your views on things like passionate kissing, fondling, and masturbation. Even though teen rates of sexual intercourse are dropping, oral sex and “outercourse”—genital contact with clothes on (which can also lead to orgasm)—are on the rise. You can help your teen see these sexual practices for what they are: a cheap imitation of the real thing, which is true sexual love in marriage.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). At this age especially, fear has its place when talking about sex. Teens should be aware of the dangers—and avoidability—of nonmarital sex and STDs. Identify the diseases by name—not just HIV and AIDS, but chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, herpes, HPV, and other STDs. Let them know that there is an overblown confidence in the reliability of condoms to protect people from STDs (and pregnancy, too) and that their reproductive organs are delicate and vulnerable to infection. Show them pictures; give them statistics. Relate those statistics to their situation: “Did you know that means that at least twenty-five kids in your graduating class have ______ ?!” Mention that their long-term ability to have children can be affected by promiscuity. Some infections can even lead to cancer. Medical information can be a strong deterrent for teens. In the heat of the moment, fear of catching a disease can hold them back.
Don’t worry about the prudence of using fear tactics (so long as you aren’t only relying on fear tactics). They are used successfully in other educational campaigns such as those against drunk driving, smoking, and texting while driving. You can help teens have a healthy fear of sexually transmitted disease as part of your “waiting for sex” campaign at home.
Contraception. Although every family will have its own values and beliefs regarding contraception, generally CanaVox does not encourage its use among teens. We defer to parents’ best judgment on this topic and would simply encourage you to communicate to your kids that it’s not a taboo subject. Some parents provide an explanation along the following lines, elaborating where they see fit: “Have you heard about condoms, the pill, or other forms of contraception?” (Listen closely, and then clarify any misinformation.) “Yes, some people use contraception to reduce the risk of STDs and pregnancy. But you know what? These measures are not always effective, and they carry their own risks. There is a lot of emotional pain that cannot be prevented by contraception. No condom can protect your heart. That’s why waiting for marriage is the best option.”
Heartbreak. Explain some of the physiology of heartbreak, so that your teens know it is real: “When we engage in sexual experiences with a person who has not proven his or her loyalty and fidelity to us with the marriage vow, we can hurt ourselves and that person, risking heartache and even real depression. Hormones like oxytocin are secreted during sex; they create a bond that, when broken, results in a chemical deficit that hurts physiologically. It’s kind of like going through drug withdrawal. I mean, heartbreak without sex is bad enough. Heartbreak when you have a sexual bond can be devastating, especially to women.”
Alcohol. Explain that alcohol is often a precursor to bad sexual decisions: “If you both drink alcohol and allow yourselves to get sexually aroused, you virtually guarantee that you will make a decision you will regret later. That’s why people should never introduce alcohol into risky situations, no matter what their age.” Warn daughters especially of the increased risk of sexual assault when alcohol is involved: “A guy who seems great at first can end up taking advantage of you when you’ve had alcohol.”
Sexual Power Plays. You might brief your teens on some of the psychological games that people play with sex: “It’s not uncommon in dating relationships for one person to be more interested than the other person is. But instead of dealing with the disappointment and moving on in a healthy way, the person who is more infatuated will sometimes use her sex appeal to create or force a bond that is not really there, through enticement, attachment, and guilt. Sometimes it is the guy who does this, but often it is the girl. She lets loose her erotic power to attach a guy by seducing him, for instance, with nude photos over text. This is one of the ways that sex can complicate dating immensely and create painful messes that are difficult to get out of.”
Peer Dynamics. Help your teens navigate the discrepancies between what they are learning at home and what might be happening among their peers: “Through no fault of their own, many of your sexually active peers do not understand what they are communicating or the impact their choices will have on their current relationship and their ability to conduct future relationships with integrity. To the extent that you can, try to help your friends think through the risks of their decisions and consider better alternatives.” This will help your teen to properly position themselves vis-à-vis their peers—not as objects of peer pressure but as agents of change.
Show Good Faith and Optimism. Finally, let teens know that you have confidence in their ability to live out sexual integrity and practice true love and authentic friendship: “You can totally do this. But no matter what happens, if you make mistakes or go too far, remember that you can always make amends, rectify a situation, and start again. We all make mistakes. For every problem, there is a solution! If you need us, we are always here to help, no matter what.”
Waiting Becomes Beautiful. By instilling good habits and ideas from an early age and having honest conversations with your children as they grow, you will help them to appreciate the beauty of sex and to wait willingly for a once-in-a-lifetime partner to marry. The important thing is to talk to your kids! It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel knowledgeable or tactful enough. The parent-child relationship is a safe haven of love where these discussions are meant to happen.
So don’t wait until they hear about it from someone else. Take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. You can do this!
For hard copies of the booklet “Tips for Talking to Kids about Sex,” from which this article is excerpted, please email email@example.com. Other suggested readings about the natural law understanding of sexuality and marriage can be found at www.CanaVox.com.
About the Author
CanaVox is an interfaith marriage and sexual-integrity movement founded by modern moms who haven’t forgotten timeless principles. Our monthly reading and discussion groups around the world inform discerning women and men with up-to-date research drawn from the social sciences, … READ MORE