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Ep 182: Tips for Tackling “The Talk”

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Episode Summary

Andrea Brand, author of Stop Sweating & Start Talking, shine slight on why sex talks are so essential, and what we can do to make them less awkward.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For centuries, parents all over the world have been plagued by the sex talk. How could we possibly cover all the intricacies and complications of fornication with our teens? And even if we’re able to sit teens down for “the talk”, they aren’t exactly excited to get into an awkward discussion about the birds and the bees. As soon as you start talking about body parts, teens run the other way or cover their ears.…and you’re left wondering if the two of you will ever be able to talk to about sex!

As difficult as it is to have these discussions, they are essential to teens’ physical and mental health. Kids are going to be interested in sex regardless, and if they don’t learn about it from you, they’ll turn to the internet. And while the web can have some educational info, it also houses plenty of dark and disturbing content that can lead kids to develop harmful ideas about consent and sexual violence. If we want to help kids form a healthy relationship to their sexuality, we’ve got to step in sooner rather than later…. and have that dreaded sex talk.

To get some much-needed advice on navigating “the talk” , we’re sitting down with Andrea Brand, author of Stop Sweating & Start Talking: How to Make Sex Chats with Your Kids Easier Than You Think. Andrea has decades of experience working in public health and as a research consultant, and now has a career as a sex educator! Today, she’s giving us some innovative tips for making “the talk” less painful and more effective!

In our interview, we’re getting into why it’s so essential to have these talks…and why it’s so dang hard! Plus, Andrea tells us how we can form community groups for teens to learn about sexuality, and what we can do to ensure a sex talk goes smoothly.

Why Sex Chats Are So Stigmatized

If things were ideal, kids would get a decent sexual education at school–but that’s not what’s happening, says Andrea. Although federal U.S. guidelines suggest that schools have sex education programs, only thirty states actually require sex ed to be taught–and only fifteen states require these classes to be medically accurate! And even the schools who do pay attention to medical facts often have a curriculum that’s out of date, with no regard for current research, Andrea explains. 

`So we can’t rely on schools to give our kids comprehensive info about sexuality…where are they going to get the education they need? Andrea explains that if we don’t want these lessons to come from random internet searches, they’ll have to come from parents. By surveying parents from all over, Andrea found that most want to have these talks, but are too embarrassed! Andrea explains that a lot of this is generational–if our parents were too uncomfortable talking to us about sex, we often feel uneasy about discussing it with our own kids.

In the episode, Andrea and I talk about how we can break this generational cycle. If we can work up the confidence to have these conversations, it can be a great way to share values with our kids. Sex talks include discussions about consent, relationships, and self esteem–all of which are important to talk about even independent of intercourse! Andrea encourages parents to consider their own values, and how they can pass these on to kids who are still forming ideas about what sexual relationships look like.

Having one-on-one conversations can be incredibly valuable, but talking in groups can be helpful as well! In the episode, Andrea and I explain how you can get your teen involved in a community sex education group.

The Power of Peer Support

Andrea believes that talking to others in the same age group can be a transformative way for teens to learn about sex! This kind of community, formed around sex and body discussions, isn’t particularly common–but Andrea says it can be remarkably powerful. These kinds of groups can be part of a wider organization, like the regional “OWL” program of the Unitarian Universalist church. They can also be found online or, as Andrea recommends, you can form your own!

Now, starting a group for teens to discuss sexuality doesn’t sound easy. But after forming one herself, Andrea believes anyone can do it! She explains that with an informal setting and some basic resources, these groups can be formed without too much of a challenge. If you want to find success, Andrea suggests being deliberate about who is in the group–hers contains teens who already knew one another, none of whom are her own children! 

Although the group began was formed to discuss sex, it soon grew beyond that. Andrea explains that the group expanded to talk about the many challenges of adolescent life–from school and overbearing parents, to body image and worries about the future. By participating as though she was just another member of the group, Andrea was able to forge trust among everyone involved, and create a safe space to discuss anything and everything.

Whether it’s one-on-one or in a group, a lot can happen over the course of the conversation about the birds and the bees. Andrea provides some pointers for handling the tricky discussion.

Tips for Tackling “The Talk”

To really provide proper sex education to kids, Andrea recommends having many talks over the course of your kid’s life. Instead of one long conversation, short, casual discussions can feel a lot more accessible to a teen. The earlier you can start, the better, says Andrea. She recommends starting as soon as kids develop basic language skills–although it’s never too late! The conversation could come from anywhere, whether it’s a scene in a TV show or a lyric in a song on the radio.

One way to ensure that teens are up to maintaining this dialogue is by not being too reactive, says Andrea. If you freak out or make a teen feel ashamed of their questions, they aren’t likely to come to you again for advice. If a teen says something that triggers you, Andrea recommends taking some time away from the conversation so that you don’t lose your cool. As long as you circle back to the topic eventually, it’s better to pause and process than explode and violate teens’ trust.

Andrea suggests letting kids know upfront when a topic is challenging for you. By being open and vulnerable, you’re allowing them to do the same, she explains. Kids might have opinions about sex that are different from yours, but Andrea believes that disagreement can be a good thing. If you can have open communication despite differing viewpoints, you can broaden each other’s perspectives while teaching kids that it’s ok to respectfully disagree with someone.

In the Episode….

It was so enlightening to speak with Andrea today about how we can handle the perils of the sex talk. In our interview, we also discuss:

  • How to set a tone of respect during sex talks
  • Why we should be concerned about porn
  • How to discuss tricky topics that aren’t sexual
  • Why it’s important to talk to kids about sexual pleasure

Thanks for tuning in this week! If you enjoyed the episode, you can find more of Andrea’s work on her website, arbcoaching.com, or on her instagram, @arbcoach. Don’t forget to subscribe and share and we’ll see you next week!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Restart a conversation you paused: (1 of 2)

“You threw me a curveball—I wasn’t expecting that. And I noticed that I was having a reaction and that’s not who I want to be. So I really wanted to get in touch with what was happening with me, but you know what, now I’m ready to talk about it, and I appreciate you coming forward with that information.”

-Andrea Brand

You’ve reached member-only content. To access this episode ahead of release, log-in or become a member.

2. Restart a conversation you paused: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

3. Take a pause if it’s a conversation you’re not prepared to get into yet:

(Members Only)

4. Validate your teen for coming forward:

(Members Only)

5. Give a reminder that you can disagree and still love each other: (1 of 3)

(Members Only)

6. Give a reminder that you can disagree and still love each other: (2 of 3)

(Members Only)

7. Give a reminder that you can disagree and still love each other: (3 of 3)

(Members Only)

8. Let them know you trust them:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Well, parents love talking about sex. So, I think this is a perfect collaboration here. How in the world would you possibly get into this field? What would possibly inspire you to want to talk about the topic that parents seem to hate talking about more than anything else?

Andrea: Well, it’s so funny that you said parents love talking about sex tongue in cheek, because I do feel there’s so many adults who absolutely are comfortable talking about sex with their friends, with their partners, with other adults in their lives, and then all of a sudden things change when it comes to talking their kids. It’s like a whole nother story altogether. And so, that’s what prompted me to write this book. That became very apparent to me when I was talking with a lot of my adult friends who at the time had prepubescent kids, basically. And I would ask, “How you doing, talking to your kids about sex?” And not all the time, but by the vast majority of the time people would respond with, “Oh, no, I haven’t been doing that.” Or they would just have this look, a glaze comes over their eyes.

Andrea: So, it became apparent to me that it’s all too common. It really is very common for parents to not be comfortable talking about sex with their kids for a number of reasons. I on the other hand was very comfortable talking about it with my kids. And it’s also been something that has been connected in my career from the get go, starting back in college. So, it just seemed like this book was ready to come out of me. And thus, I decided to actually put it out there in the world.

Andy: One topic in the book is this idea of comprehensive sex education versus abstinence only. And reading this has been getting me thinking lot about the sex education I received when I was a teenager. And I mean, multiple times, I think we only talked about it in fifth grade, talked about in middle school, talked about it in high school. And going through the topics that you talk about in your book that are important to cover as part of sex education and really a lot of those we never covered. And I felt like, especially things like LGBTQ issues and pleasure, and I mean, so many just basic concepts that seem, well, almost like no brainers that would be included in a unit on sex education or were completely missing from what I received and had to just figure out on my own. Why is sex education so limited in schools?

Andrea: Yeah. I know, you raise such great points right there. You’re absolutely right. Everything you’ve said is completely relatable. A lot of it depends on where somebody lives in the country, but it’s not even that cut and dry. It’s not that simple. So, just to give you the big background overview is that there are guidelines, there are federal guidelines about what can be included or should be included in sex ed, but they’re only guidelines. What that means is then states have the freedom to decide how they want to address it. And then within each state, you also, the school districts have a degree of autonomy.

Andrea: So, just to give you a couple of examples, you have a number of states. I mean, the last time I checked for my book was just under a year ago, but just under a year ago, I think there were 30 states that required sex education be taught.

Andy: At all?

Andrea: But that didn’t mean it had to be comprehensive. It could be abstinence only, which is also now known. It might also be called sexual risk avoidance, just so you know. Those terms are interchangeable. So, it just meant something had to be taught. But what gets scarier is, is that of those 15 didn’t have a requirement that it be medically accurate. So, I mean, I just pause right there. You could basically say, “Yep, we teach sex ed, but it’s not factual.” You can see where this is going and it’s really a disservice to kids and disempowering to kids. So, it might not be medically accurate, might not be culturally responsive, so lacking cultural sensitivity and so forth. And it may not be evidence based or evidence informed. So, that means it’s not based on any rigorous curriculum that’s been studied and peer reviewed and so forth.

Andrea: So, you can see how it’s a setup for a lack of good, solid, appropriate, factual, medically accurate information. And so, I don’t want to get too much into the weeds, but I will just say that I happen to live in a state that’s known to be rather progressive. And even in my state, you can have two school districts next to each other. One might be teaching a comprehensive sex ed curriculum and the town over may be teaching the sexual risk avoidance curriculum, if or nothing at all. I mean, so, and I’m in a more progressive state, as politicians would say. So, if you were to just look across a map of the United States, it’s really, it’s all over the board.

Andrea: And I mean, there’s a lot of issues that come up with it. A lot of the curriculum are very heteronormative. So, if you’re not someone who identifies as a straight male, for example, you’re feeling left out in that classroom. I mean, and I’m oversimplifying it, but I’m trying to really say how you can see how it really can alienate a big segment of our population. And how do people in the classroom feel if they’re not identifying with what’s being taught?

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Andrea: However you want to cut that. So, yeah. So, sex ed in the US is probably not one of our greatest strengths here. There are some countries who are doing it better for sure. And that’s when I say, “Okay, so if we can’t rely on this happening in schools and where are kids going to get good information? And do you want to be passive about that?”

Andy: Well, from porn.

Andrea: Bingo. So, that’s a great place for kids to look, they think. They’re [thinking], “Oh, well, I’m just going to go online and I’ll either for entertainment,” or maybe they’re seeking out information and they land on porn. And that’s totally makes sense, that’s going to happen. Now, imagine if somebody doesn’t have sexual experience nor sexual education and they are all of a sudden seeing porn they’ve never seen before. Wow, is that not only eye-opening, but they’re now taking on what they’re seeing as this is what it is. And that can cause a lot of misunderstanding about sex, power dynamics, violence, consent, safety. I mean, you name it. I’m just trying to sum it up right here for a moment. But so many things, if that’s someone’s introduction without really having the media literacy or the ability to see that what they’re watching isn’t necessarily based in reality or good healthy relationships.

Andy: You had some interesting responses in here. You surveyed some parents about why is it important for your child to receive accurate sex education. Where do you want your child to learn about sex? How important is it for you to be their primary resource in this area? What fears you have about talking to your child about sex? And I thought some of the responses that you shared in here were really, really interesting. What did you learn from questioning parents about this topic?

Andrea: Yeah. What I learned is that we can make no assumptions. So, people, even people who have an understanding that it’s important to talk to their kids about sex are still sometimes frozen in their tracks. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of common fears that parents have, and they also have a lot of common goals. They want their kids to be empowered with information. They want their kids to know that the parents are go-to resources or there’s other adult substitutes who can be go-to resources. They want their kids to understand that sex is not only for reproduction, that it’s also for pleasure and that you get to have full control over your body. It’s all you to be giving consent, to check in with your partner, to making sure that you’re giving consent, you’re receiving consent, that it’s like an ongoing thing. Yeah, I mean, parents have a lot of feelings about this, and yet it’s not something you hear parents talking about very much.

Andy: No…

Andrea: Exactly. Parents are keeping this to themselves. I think it partially has to do with their own template from how they were growing up, from maybe not having a comfortable role model about talking about this openly, figuring out things on their own a few decades ago, or based on these, maybe not very rigorous sex ed classes, if they had any in their school. So, this is one of those things where it’s like, we are, I don’t want to sound dramatic, but almost breaking the cycle of what we had as a model in going forward. My takeaway from the parents is they have a lot of really good intentions. They really do want to be a go-to resource, not just to be the go-to, but to be proactive in initiating conversations, but somehow just gets stopped in their tracks. It just brings up stuff and they end up putting it off, hoping to get to it later, but not necessarily prioritizing it.

Andy: So, one thing we talk a lot about on the show is values. And you have a really great section on values in here and life values and values surrounding sex. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about just, well, figuring out what values you want to communicate, and then also analyzing what values you actually are communicating or what messages your teenager might be receiving about what your values are.

Andrea: Yeah, it’s true. Because one thing that I realized a while ago is that we’re constantly sharing our values with our kids, even if we’re not overtly safe.

Andy: Yeah, okay. Yeah, yeah. Well, they’re so perceptive and they make assumptions about what our values are in all kinds of areas, without us even really saying anything or realizing that we’re communicating anything.

Andrea: And I believe that they’re more likely to make those assumptions when we’re not overtly stating what those values are. So, they’re picking up on subtle cues or maybe not the subtle cues that we’re giving off. I think I may give examples of this in the book, I’m not sure. But even if you’re listening to a news story on the radio that somehow triggers you and you blurt out a response to nobody, you’re talking to the radio, child in the room is picking up on that, on what it is that you’re responding to, even if you’re not having this conversation with the child about the topic that you’re listening to, for example. Or not saying something out loud or not talking about something is where they get all the space to create all the assumptions. Then that’s where you can get yourself into a lot of misunderstandings.

Andrea: I don’t want to say get into trouble, but just misunderstandings. So, the way around that is really to just steer into things, and this can start at early ages. So, even though a lot of the conversations that we think of having, especially the ones that give us knots in our stomachs or make us feel tongue-tied, are the ones that happen when the kids are tweens or teens. There are so many conversations starting from as soon as your child has language skills that are setting the stage and that are conveying your values. And one of the things that I do love to emphasize about being the person to talk to your kids about sex is it is the most beautiful opportunity to thread your values into sex education, that sometimes parents are worried are going to be omitted when kids get whatever sex ed, if they get any sex ed in school.

Andrea: So, I don’t feel like—Sex ed is not either at school or at home. In my view, it’s, you’re getting it from many reputable resources. So, hopefully, it’s school. There could even be some good community programs and parents still. Even if they’re getting comprehensive sex ed from these other places that are good, you still can be reinforcing it. And that’s your chance to say what your values are. And by sexual values, what do I mean? A lot of times parents aren’t aware of what their sexual values are and that’s why I wanted to put something in the book to help people get in touch with what those are. A simple one might be and I sometimes feel a little old fashioned even just saying this, but I’m going to put it out there, sex before you’re in a lifetime committed relationship, whether it’s marriage or life partner, doesn’t matter, that’s an example of a value.

Andrea: Do you agree that that’s okay or do you agree that that’s not okay for whatever reason? And how is that coming across to you and why? If you are one who doesn’t believe in that and being sexual until you’re with your final life partner, why is that? Where does that come from and so forth? So, it’s not just having a statement that you’re like, “This is my value and that’s it,” it’s trying to get in touch with an understanding why is that, and digging a little bit deeper. Because that often can cause then parents to reflect, see what’s inside, and even open their mind to maybe a perspective that’s a little bit different for their child, even if it’s a little bit more open than what they thought was the parent’s own value. Really self-awareness. It really has to do with just getting in touch with that. And a lot of us don’t do it unless we’re absolutely confronted with it. There’s so many varying degrees of people who are self-awareness.

Andy: Yeah. But at that point then it’s a little bit late.

Andrea: Yeah, exactly right. Exactly. As you saw, there’s a lot of things in here that try to help parents get in touch with their sexual values. An example is pleasure. The primary reason people are sexually involved is pleasure, and yet that rarely comes out in sex ed.

Andrea: Sex ed really goes often back to, I mean, I don’t even know what words to say, just reproduction, you know?

Andy: Right.

Andrea: The nuts and bolts of reproduction. And first of all, that’s just a fraction of sexual activity and it certainly doesn’t account for all forms of reproduction anymore, right? It’s missing out on so many things. So, pleasure is a big topic that is often overlooked. And honestly, I feel that it’s so important for kids to understand that sex can be pleasurable and it can lead to some really wonderful discussions between parent and child. And again, just so many opportunities to explain, yes, it’s pleasurable, and typically, though, you would wait until you feel comfortable, you do things only when you feel it’s your time. And there’s so many opportunities for so many more discussions. I know here I’m oversimplifying it just for our purposes, but no shortage of great discussions. And then it also is a relationship building with parent and child, because you’re trusted. It shows that you’re not reacting, you’re not shaming.

Andrea: I mean, these are all, to me, parts of being that comfortable, open go-to person for your child, to be able to give really good information and to give off that message that you can come to me with anything, and I’m not going to fly off the handle, make you feel less than, or shamed or anything. And I feel, as parents, isn’t that what we want, for our children to come to us so we can be good communicators two ways, really?

Andy: And by going there and talking about it, even though it’s awkward, really making the effort to be non-judgmental. And you also are sending the message that your presence that they can talk to you about really anything. And I think that we should see it as an opportunity. Talking about sex allows us to build more trust, like you’re saying, and deepen our communication with our teenagers, so that then now they feel like they can come to us with all kinds of situations in the future. Like, “Hey, wow, if mom came to me with that super awkward conversation about the clitoris, then I can tell her about this thing I’m struggling with or this thing that happened to me.” And so, I really think that’s actually a huge benefit of having these kinds of talks.

Andrea: I agree with you. I completely agree with you. And in fact, a lot of the things that I outline and use as exercises in the book really can be used for any topics that are difficult to have. I do feel like this is to help people get over their fears or whatever barriers they put up. And let’s be honest, the barriers are self-imposed. That’s what we do. We put these barriers up and we need to just chip away at them and it becomes easier, and then these discussions become almost second nature.

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About Andrea Brand

Andrea Brand is the author of Stop Sweating and Start Talking.

Brand has decades of experience working in public health, first in direct care and later as a research consultant to impact programs and policy. She holds a Masters in Social Work and Masters in Public Health from the University of Michigan. She now works as a sex educator, consultant, speaker and coach.

An empty nester, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and dog.

Want More Stop Sweating and Start Talking?

Find Andrea Brand on her website, Instagram, and LinkedIn.