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There are some universal truths about being a parent, and one of them is that when we try to talk with our teenagers, it can feel like we’re speaking in different languages.  This is especially true when we’re talking to them about sex.

Recently, Planned Parenthood, Family Circle magazine, and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at NYU (CLAFH) commissioned a survey looking at how parents and teens talk about sex and sexuality.  We polled more than 2,000 parents and teens living in the same households, and the results quickly made one thing clear:  what parents intend to say is different from what teens are hearing.  One mother, for example, told us that the main message she wants to send her daughter about sex is to make a healthy choice about who she wishes to date and have a physical relationship for the right reasons.”  What her 16-year-old daughter heard, however, is “not to do it.”

In another case, a mother said what she most wanted to tell her son about sex is “that his sexual health is HIS responsibility, not just a girl’s.  That alcohol and drugs interfere with the ability to make smart choices when sex is involved.  Also that girls are not objects to be cast aside, but cherished.”  But all her son, 15, heard was “use protection.”

We saw similar communication breakdowns between parents and teens over and over again.  Part of the problem may be that teens are actually much more uncomfortable talking about sex than their parents — surprisingly, half of all teens feel uncomfortable talking with their parents about sex, compared to just 19 percent of parents who feel uncomfortable talking with their teens.

As parents, we want our kids to know that they can come to us for anything.  The challenge is not just to talk with them, but to get them to listen and feel comfortable having important conversations like talking about sex.  To do that, parents may need to acknowledge that it can sometimes be uncomfortable talking about sex, and we need to make use of opportunities such as news stories, popular song lyrics, and TV shows to get the conversation going.  We also need to listen to and respect teens’ perspectives and concerns.  It’s not just about us talking, but also listening to our teens and finding out what they’re interested in, and what they want and need more guidance about.

It’s also helpful to try to think like your teen, even if it means using nontraditional ways of communicating with them.  I know I have a better chance of getting my son's attention if I text him, even when we're in the same room.  And instead of one big talk, aim for frequent, ongoing discussions throughout the years — the same kinds of ongoing discussions we have with our kids about school and other health topics like eating and exercise.

This month happens to be Let’s Talk Month, an annual effort to encourage parents and teens to talk about sex.   So it’s a perfect time for us to start or keep the conversation going with our teens.  You can find help getting started here.

We know that teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity, have fewer partners, and use condoms and other contraceptives when they do have sex.  We can make a difference by talking with our teens.  So let’s talk.

We’re excited to see the conversations about Let’s Talk Month and are happy to share them with you:

Family Circle: How to Have the Sex Talk With Your Teen

USA Today: How Parents, Teens Handle Talking About Sex

CNN: Cynthia Nixon: Talk to Your Kids About Sex

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Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. You can find her on Twitter at @LeslieKantor.


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