Breaking the Silence: Better Parent/Child Conversations About Sex and Sexuality

For most of us, parent-child conversations about sexuality are pretty uncomfortable, whether you’re the parent or the child. But School of Family Life professor Laura Padilla-Walker says there are ways families can avoid that tension. In this year’s recent Cutler Lecture, hosted annually by our college, Dr. Padilla-Walker discussed her research on the ways parents teach teens about sexuality, and what it revealed about more effective ways of having those conversations.

How Not to Have Those Conversations

Outside research suggests that highly religious parents often wait the longest and feel the least comfortable when they speak with their children about sexuality (which is especially true for Catholic, Jewish, and LDS families). In Dr. Padilla-Walker’s research, her students, who were predominantly LDS, reported that their parents didn’t discuss sex often and didn’t always handle the conversation well. LDS parents tended to focus on abstinence and the sacredness of sex, but 46% of her survey participants reported that their parents seemed embarrassed during conversations about sexuality. Roughly 24% mentioned that their parents used fear tactics as part of those discussions.

LDS sexuality conversations
These percentages come from a survey distributed by Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life.

What’s more, many people in Dr. Padilla-Walker’s sample (48% of female respondents, 33% of male respondents) reported that they had experienced anxiety concerning their sexuality. That anxiety wasn’t correlated with what their parents said but with how they led conversations about sex. When parents seemed embarrassed or when kids had to initiate conversations about sex, those children had less healthy views of sexuality. When parents said sex was good or normal (without employing any fear tactics), their kids had healthier views of sexuality.

But where exactly should parents begin?

How to Have Those Conversations

Improve the Parent-Child Relationship

Dr. Padilla-Walker said that it’s important to establish a “culture of openness” and that improving the parent-child relationship is the first step. As parents grow closer to their children by praising them, spending time with them, and keeping an open dialogue, conversations about sex will become more comfortable and natural.

Improve the Frequency and Timing of Conversations About Sexuality

She also suggested ways that parents can improve the frequency and timing of conversations about sexuality. It’s not enough for parents to initiate one big sex talk with their children, Dr. Padilla-Walker said, and parents shouldn’t postpone those conversations until their children are sexually active or curious. Rather, parents and children should discuss sexuality often and early, while parents “pre-arm” their kids.

Focus on the Positives

Finally, Dr. Padilla-Walker recommended that parents focus on the positives of waiting to become sexually active, as well as the positive aspects of sexuality in marriage.

Our friends at the Comprehensive Clinic provide these additional instructions, in a separate blog post:

  • avoid using slang, euphemisms, or metaphors when talking about sex
  • Give your children age-appropriate sexual education
  • avoid “reactive sex ed”

“Parents are the scaffolding that will help their children learn about healthy sexuality,” Dr. Padilla-Walker concluded. Adolescents will be better off when their parents help them build a healthy framework.

Dr. Padilla-Walker’s full lecture is available here.

 

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