This post: Why You Need to Have Those Awkward Conversations with Your Teen
Written By: Jessica Manning
When I’m talking with students who have confided something personal or sensitive with me, I always ask them if they’ve spoken with their parents about the topic. I’m always amazed by how many of them reply, “No, I don’t talk to my parents about things like this.”
Interestingly, it goes both ways.
I’ve had countless conversations with parents who have asked me to broach certain topics with their kids because the topic at hand was just too sensitive or uncomfortable to discuss and they didn’t know how to start the conversation.
I get it. Being a teenager is awkward. But what we don’t talk enough about is that being a parent of a teen can be just as awkward.
Why You NEED to Have Those Awkward Conversations with Your Teen
While writing this post, it stirred up memories from an awkward moment I had in my own teen years…
One summer, after I had just turned 12, my friends and I discovered a book on my parents’ bedroom shelf entitled Where Do Babies Come From? It was a cartoon-like book meant to walk a parent through discussing sexual intercourse with an adolescent. Every time my friends came over (of course, when my parents weren’t around), they’d go straight for the book. Needless to say, they were fascinated; I was mortified.
Why would my parents have such an embarrassing book in our home?
I vividly remember the day my mom entered my bedroom carrying that book – the one that, unbeknownst to her, I’d already read from beginning to end. I immediately start crying begging her to leave my room.
After all, that book (and my friend, Lindsay) had already taught me everything I thought I needed to know about sex. I surely didn’t want to talk about such an embarrassing subject with my Mom!
However, my mom ignored my pleas, sat on my bed next to me, and opened the book. I hated every minute of reading it. But looking back, I realize that it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, either. I admire her willingness to sit through the awkwardness with me, and in hindsight, that awkward conversation set the tone in our relationship opening the door to many other uncomfortable, yet necessary, conversations that were to come.
My hometown friends still joke to this day that the only reason they learned about sex was because they read that book at my house.
As a Mom raising teens now, I find it baffling that none of my friends’ parents felt the conversation about sex was important and necessary. But I’ve also realized that perhaps it wasn’t that they didn’t think the topic was important, but rather they didn’t know where to begin. The subject was just too uncomfortable to talk about and they feared they might be prematurely stealing their child’s innocence.
What I’ve learned is that we have to step way out of our comfort zone and open the door to conversations with our kids that perhaps none of us want to have. If we don’t, our kids will surely seek the information they crave elsewhere… from their friends, from the Internet, perhaps even from other adults.
Teenagers are naturally curious. Don’t fool yourself. You can predict that prurient curiosities WILL arise about sex, pornography, their changing bodies, masturbation, and their (or others) sexual identity.
Oftentimes, far sooner than we’d like, they’re going to hear about and be exposed to such things as drugs, alcohol, mental health, and suicide, and they’re going to have questions. As parents, we have to stand ready.
In my family, I’ve encouraged my sons to become comfortable coming to me about uncomfortable subjects, whatever those topics may be. And, I never let our gender difference determine what topics we discuss. Whether my sons come to me or their dad, they know that no subject is ever “off limits.” We adopted this “open door policy” in our family when my boys were young. After all, if we haven’t practiced vulnerability throughout their formative years, how could we expect them to be open with us at 14, 16, or 18?
Since my boys were young, I’ve always told them, “We’re a family who talks.” And, you can be a family who talks, too. Here are a few tips I’ve learned that have helped me engage with my boys openly and honestly about ANY topic.
Don’t Make Uncomfortable Conversations a Big Event
Normalize impromptu conversations about difficult topics when the timing seems natural. If there is a topic on your mind you need to discuss with your teen, don’t wait for the perfect time.
You can also use things like movies, stories in the news, or information your teen is sharing about their friends as a launchpad. A lot of parents have also had great success getting their teens to open up using parent/teen journals. And, car rides work wonders to get your teen to open up. (Anywhere that doesn’t require your teen to make direct eye contact.)
On the flip side, you wouldn’t want your teen waiting to talk to you about subjects until just the right moment. So try to be flexible and remember that teenagers live in the present and will be more likely to broach topics when they’re in the mood provided they feel it’s not going to be a big deal or turn into a longwinded, boring lecture.
Don’t Underestimate What Your Kids Know
Kids today have a plethora of information at their fingertips – including every inappropriate thing you can imagine. And, ALL teens are curious, so don’t be naive in believing that your teen hasn’t allowed their curiosity to get the best of them.
Thus, when your teen approaches you with a question or opens the door to a subject, just remember, chances are they know far more than you think they do.
Ask Questions and Don’t Judge Their Answers
Think about the difference between asking a teen, “Do you ever feel tempted to look at inappropriate things on your phone?” versus “When do you feel tempted to look at inappropriate things on your phone?”
If you can already predict something is happening, don’t give your teens an easy out with a closed-ended question. Sadly, the world does not consider anything off-topic for our teens, so as parents, we need to do the same.
Because many teens are tight-lipped, the art of questioning is especially important when it comes to awkward topics. No matter what, don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t ridicule (or overreact) if the answer is not what you want to hear.
Who do you want teaching, influencing, or answering the questions your teen is dying to know? Their friends? A YouTube or TikTok influencer? Or, perhaps no one?
That’s why you need to have those awkward conversations with your teen, no matter how challenging it may be.
We may not have all the answers and we certainly won’t always know the right things to say when our kids want to talk about tough topics.
But we have to try…
We have to try to listen, offer answers and explanations the best we can, and let them know they can always come to us anytime about anything. And, that, parents, is the best any of us can do.
About Jessica Manning
Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis.