Real talk: opening up to your folks about sex isn’t easy. But just because something is hard – OK, blush-worthy, awkward and hard – doesn’t mean it’s not important. Maybe you want to know about the Pill. Or have had a pregnancy or STI scare. Or are confused about same-sex feelings. Perhaps you need a heart-to-heart about feeling like the last virgin in Australia (or the world).
Whatever your situation, talking helps. But with 50 per cent of young people feeling unsatisfied with their school’s sex education, according to a recent La Trobe University study, you need somewhere to turn. Enter: your parents.
Wait, what? Do I have to?
Every family is different, but trying to build an honest relationship with your folks is important. For sexologist Vanessa Thompson, it’s ideal if parents bring up the topic, but that’s not always going to happen. “They’re just as embarrassed as you are,” Vanessa says. “And whether you want to believe this, they know a lot! So, having a consistent source of information throughout your teen years can come in handy.” You also need someone to discuss the emotional intricacies of sex with, adds Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide To Dating And Relationships and CEO of Enlighten Education. “The girls I meet want more guidance with things like knowing when it’s the right time, consent, or how to handle it if someone calls you a derogative term like ‘sl*t’,” she adds.
Embrace the awkward
There’s a 99.9 per cent chance you’re going to find talking about sex embarrassing. But if you know that going in, then there’s nothing you can’t handle. Plus, there’s an upside for getting the conversation started. “The more you and your parents talk, the more comfortable you’ll be,” reminds Vanessa. “Sex doesn’t need to be treated any differently to any other topic.”
When it’s really worth it
Whether you think you may be pregnant, are worried about a sexual partner rushing you, or need to have your first pap smear, support is ideal. This absolutely goes for cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexually-themed cyber bullying, too.
For Ellie*, 17, confessing to her mum that she was ready to go on the Pill was stressful, but she’s glad she did it. “Mum was shocked at first, but once she had a chance to take it all in, we talked about it and she took me to the doctor,” she says. “I’m glad I told her, because it made us feel closer and was better than sneaking around.”
All right, so what do I say?
First, set the mood. That means no cornering Mum or Dad when they’re trying to cook spag bol. “Give them a heads-up that you’d like to talk in private,” encourages Vanessa. Next, set a time to chat. Dannielle says many of her clients – both teens and parents – also find talking in the car handy, as they’re not distracted by whistling kettles or ringing phones. As for what to say? “Use sentences starting with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ to help to keep everyone calm, and avoid anyone getting defensive,” Dannielle says.
Tongue-tied? Try these tips
If fronting up in person is too much, there are other ways to kick-start the conversation. “Send an email or write a letter to express your feelings,” says Dannielle. Think leaving a written truth-bomb for your folks may make things worse? Write the letter, but don’t give it to them – that way, you’re clear on your thoughts. Both experts also recommend watching TV or a movie together that deals with sexual themes, such as Puberty Blues, as a conversation ice-breaker.
Sorry, still can’t do it!
We get it. Not everyone is able to talk to their parents, due to personal, religious or cultural reasons. If opening up to your rents is a no-go, or the first few attempts to do so have become destructive, seek out another trusted adult. “Some parents just can’t go there, so if all else fails talk to an aunt, a family friend, a friend’s parent, a doctor – even a school counsellor may be able to point you in the right direction.”
Keep this in mind
However, in many cases, talking about sex, and sexual health, does get easier. “Don’t give up your parents,” Dannielle says. “Remind yourself that your parents’ first response may not be the way they’d respond down the track.” And if things don’t change? Acknowledge there may be parts of dating and relationships that you can talk to them about. “Maybe they’re good at talking about how to handle a break-up,” Dannielle adds. “Just try to keep a dialogue going. It doesn’t necessarily come easily, but an open and trusting relationship is worth working towards.”
3 sites to visit when talk gets tough
1. Headspace: loads of info on sex, sexual health, same-sex attraction and more. headspace.org.au
2. Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia: find clinics and support in your area. shfpa.org.au
3. Kids Help Line: a free 24-hour counselling service for people aged 5-25 years. kidshelp.com.au / 1800 55 1800