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The "Barrier Method" When Talking to Teens about Sex

Photo courtesy Dollar Photo Club

Research has repeatedly proven that when parents talk honestly and openly about sex with their children, they are more likely to wait before engaging in first sex and more likely to use protection. In other words, adolescents are actually listening to their parents.

A recent study by Laura Widman and colleagues (Parent-Adolescent Sexual Communication and Adolescent Safer Sex Behavior: A Meta-Analysis) notes that conversations between teens and mothers encourages safer sex practices; even more than conversations between fathers and their children. It is noted in Widman’s study that daughters tend to have more frequent sexuality-based conversations with parents - usually their mother - than sons do. Because of these conversations between mothers and daughters, daughters are more likely to use protection.

Sue, a mother of three states:

“I was probably the only parent who spoke about these issues with the kids. I never had a real sit-down, scheduled talk.  It was more casual when things popped up.  None of my kids really dated in high school so there was never the talk that occurred out of necessity. My parents never had that talk with me and I'm ashamed to say I followed suit.  My husband would never speak about it because in his mind premarital sex was wrong and they just shouldn't do it. I took opportunities when conversation went that route to instill bits of wisdom. My main concern with them was that they would always be open with me and ask questions.”  

A study by Ellen Wilson and colleagues called Parents’ Perspectives on Talking to Preteenage Children About Sex noted that fathers are more comfortable answering questions “directly and honestly” about sexuality when approached by their children. Dads report feeling more comfortable talking to their kids about sex, however they are not typically the parent that purposefully initiates conversation with the children. It is time to draw fathers into the conversation and encourage men and boys to talk openly and honestly with each other.

Melissa, a mother of three grown children reflects on her experience as her children’s educator: 

“I know that we bought a book and read it with each child. I'm sure I did the majority with all three children because I was around.  It was as simple as that.  I was home at the appropriate time, during the teachable moments.  In subsequent years, I have had much more detailed conversations with my daughters, but would have been mortified to talk to my son. (I’m sure he would have been, too). I asked my husband recently if he had ever had an in depth conversation with our son about sex and he said no. Obviously, our son figured it out; he and his wife are now expecting.”

Jennifer writes:

“I really don't remember any ONE sex talk with my daughter. It was a combination of small conversations, mostly in the car. That seemed to always be a great time for conversations she deemed uncomfortable.  The numerous small conversations worked well for me because she always absorbed "parental information” and guidance best in small chunks.”

She goes on to say…

“I do remember exactly, however, our conversation (in 3rd grade) about how "babies are born".
"Mom, I don't want know how the babies come out (we had already talked about that), but I want to know how they get in there! Don't tell me a stork; that's ridiculous!””

Conversational Barriers

Moms and dads may feel uncomfortable talking to their kids about sex for a several reasons, according to Wilson’s study. In fact, about a quarter of adolescents have not talked to their parents at all about this impactful topic.

Parents may feel they do not have enough information to provide adequate education for their child or will be asked a question in which they do not know the answer.

You are not expected to know everything there is to know about sex. Besides, as you have discovered, your child does not think you know anything anyway, so the knowledge you do have will impress and surprise them. However, there are many books and online resources that can provide parents with up-to-date, medically-accurate information. Here are a few to get you started:

Online Resources:

Planned Parenthood ANSWER Kids In The House Office of Adolescent Health WomanCare Global TeenWorldConfidential


  • 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering Your Child with Knowledge of Sexual Intimacy (Volumes 1, 2, and 3) by Educate and Empower Kids
  • It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends (The Family Library) by Robie Harris
  • Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More by Jane Fonda
  • Prepping Parents for Puberty Talks: A Compilation of Over 500 Questions Children Ask with Child-Friendly Answers by Lori Reichel, PhD

Parents may feel their child is not ready to learn about such topics because they have not shown interest in romantic relationships.

Discussions should be instigated early and often, not only when dating becomes an issue. It is best to help your child be prepared for the mental/emotional, social, as well as physical factors that go into having a healthy relationship. It is difficult to teach that in one afternoon.

Parents may feel they are intruding on a private aspect of their child’s life.

There is a difference between being nosy and being interested. Recognizing that your child has romantic interests is not intrusive. In fact, I am willing to bet it is going on right in front of your nose, therefore inviting conversation. I used to send my youngest daughter down to the basement to “distract” my oldest daughter and her boyfriend from any unwanted activity that might be going on. Yes, that is intrusive. I offer no apologies.

Parents may not want to know their child is romantically involved with someone.

Sometimes we just do not want to know if our child is sexually active. It is one more thing we have to deal with as busy parents. I get it. However, I recommend engaging in safer sex conversation now, than risking a pregnancy or STI conversation later. You are probably losing sleep worrying about it anyway. Just talk it out and get it in the open.

Parents often struggle with not knowing how to start the conversation or knowing what to say.

What do you say to get the conversation going? How do you say it without feeling … awkward? Possibly the best solution is to accept the fact that it may indeed be awkward. It is what it is.  Take a deep breath and just start the conversation.

As illustrated by Melissa, Jennifer, and Sue, using age-appropriate books to instigate conversation, finding a comfortable space to talk, and being open and available to conversation are techniques that parents find helpful when talking to their children about sex. Using media and current events to instigate conversation can be helpful. If your children are younger, start talking now. It will help make conversation less awkward when they are older.
Children appreciate when parents are engaged and invested in their future. They respond positively to the connection they feel with their parent, especially when talking about sexuality honestly and without judgment. Mothers and fathers have a responsibility to get the conversation rolling. No, you do not have all the answers. Yes, it may be awkward. But honestly, this is a moment to connect with your child on a different level. Not only will they appreciate your effort, but it will inspire them to think twice when making decisions about having sex. Finally, it will give them a memory to chuckle about when they become parents and have to face this issue as well.

Kim Cook's picture

Kim Cook is a registered nurse (RN) who spent several years happily employed as an elementary school nurse. Broadening her
interests into the colorful world of adolescence, Kim returned to school to become a middle and high school health education teacher.  She also graduated with a minor in psychology and a certification in LGBT Studies. Kim is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).

Fueling her passion for comprehensive adolescent sexuality health education, Kim writes an informational blog for parents: Teen World Confidential. With a humorous perspective, she offers medically- accurate information in a non-judgmental approach about all things S-E-X and the adolescent. Kim is currently...