9 Ways to Talk About Sex With Your Teen or Tween

What kids think about sex might surprise you, but what they're doing sexually—and when they're doing it—might surprise you even more. In a study this year of more than a 1,000 tweens (kids between the ages 11 and 14), commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. and loveisrespect.org, nearly half said they'd had a boy- or girlfriend, and one in four said that oral sex or going "all the way" is part of a tween romance. The parents' view? Only 7 percent of parents surveyed in this study think their own child has gone any further than "making out."

The whole subject of sex is so delicate that some parents put off talking to kids about it, believing their child is still too young, or because they're not sure what to say. They "finally sit down to have the Big Talk," says Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston, "and it turns out their teen is already having sex." (The average age of first intercourse in the United States is 16, according to the Centers for Disease Control)
The good news is that there's plenty of evidence indicating that kids whose parents do discuss sex with them are more cautious than their peers—more likely to put off sex or use contraception. They also have fewer partners. Coaching for parents helps, as well. Parents who participated in a training program about how to have those difficult conversations, Schuster reports, were six times more likely than a control group to have discussed condoms with their children. So what did the parents learn? Here are nine "talking sex" tips:

1. Find the moment. Instead of saying "it's time to talk about you-know," let the topic arise naturally—say, during a love scene in a video, or while passing a couple on a park bench. It helps to think about opening lines in advance.

2. Don't be vague about your own feelings. You know you don't want your ninth grader getting pregnant, but is oral sex OK? How do you feel about your daughter going steady or dating several boys casually? Consider the messages you want your kids to hear.

3. Anticipate the roadblocks that a teen or tween might set up. If they tend to say "uh huh," try asking open-ended questions or suggesting a variety of possible ways someone might feel in a relevant situation.

4. Be a good listener. Avoid lecturing and don't interrupt once your child opens up. Restate in your own words what you hear and identify feelings.

5. Help your child consider the pros and cons of sexual choices.

6. Relate sex and physical intimacy to love, caring and respect for themselves and their partner.

7. Teach strategies to manage sexual pressure. It may not be obvious to your daughter that she can suggest going to the movies or a restaurant instead of lounging with her boyfriend on a sofa without adult supervision. Or she may not know she can set and stick to a clear rule (such as no touching below the waist). Discuss the fact that "no means no." A simple strategy like getting up and going to the bathroom can give a girl time to regroup.

8. Don't be afraid to get down to specifics. If your teenage daughter or son is spending every afternoon alone with a main squeeze, and you're simply hoping they're using condoms, go ahead and ask whether they are sexually active and using birth control. You can buy a box of condoms and talk about how to use them—practice on a cucumber. A good laugh won't hurt your relationship.

9. Make the conversation ongoing—not a talk that happens once or twice. For more tips on talking to kids about sex and other sensitive issues, visit Children Now, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization's guide to talking to kids of all ages about sexual subjects. Or The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry's "Facts for Families."