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This story is adapted from an episode of Life Kit, NPR's podcast with tools to help you get it together. Listen to the episode at the top of the page, or find it here.
Cora Breuner was sitting at home one day about to do a little work on her laptop.
"I remember, when I opened my computer, I looked at my son — who shall remain nameless — and I said, 'Why is this porn site on my laptop?'"
"I'm an adolescent male, Mom."
It would have been an awkward moment for just about any parent. Then again, Breuner isn't just any parent. She's Doctor Cora Breuner, and she works in the adolescent medicine clinic at Seattle Children's Hospital. In other words, she is an expert on all the reasons her son had been browsing pornography on her laptop.
The moral of this story: No matter how prepared you think you are as a parent, few subjects can catch us off guard or tie us into knots more quickly than sex.
Well, NPR's Life Kit is here to help. For this episode, we spoke with Breuner, along with a host of researchers, advocates and sex educators, about how parents can help tweens and teens navigate the hormone-infused awkwardness of puberty and beyond.
(Our previous episode explored how to talk to kids from birth to the doorstep of puberty — give it a listen if you want to brush up on the basics, like why you should use anatomically correct terms for body parts — call a vulva a vulva.)
Here are our biggest takeaways:
1. Don't wait until puberty to start talking about puberty.
Puberty is a huge transformation, both physically and emotionally, and it can start as early as 8 years old, especially for girls. If children aren't prepared for the changes — from breast and penis development to wet dreams and menstrual periods — it can feel even more disruptive.
Remember, this is a time when the brain is undergoing serious rewiring. The architecture of our frontal lobes, which regulate emotion, is shifting, says Breuner. Teens' brains are also being flooded with hormones, including estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Translation: Emotions will be volatile, and kids' decision-making ability is gonna go a little haywire. "The part of their brain that is supposed to say, 'Stop doing that!' isn't really working."
The better that tweens understand the changes they will be going through, the better equipped they'll be to manage the tumult. And that will require the grown-ups in their lives to be proactive. So find a few quiet moments, when the pressure is off — maybe in the car or on a hike, when you don't have to make eye contact — and give them the basics.
When she was in fourth grade, 15-year-old Lily McGrath remembers her mother sitting her down "right before puberty started ... basically prepping me and telling me, 'So these are some things that are going to happen to you in the future. And if you have questions, please ask.'"
McGrath is now a youth ambassador for the sex education initiative Amaze, talking to other youth about sexual health topics.
Lily says her mom, Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski, told her that her breasts would likely begin to grow and explained what menstruation would feel like, "almost answering some of the questions before I even really knew that those were gonna be questions I needed answers to. ... She was very open from the get-go, even before those were things that I needed to know about."
2. If your teen speaks up about sex, sexuality or gender, listen, love and be humble.
Perhaps the most powerful thing parents and guardians can do to prepare their kids for adolescence is to create an open channel of judgment-free communication. That way, when a tween or teen starts feeling the rush of adolescence, they'll take their questions to you first.
It doesn't matter what they're trying to share — whether they're coming out, curious about birth control or still confused by the basic mechanics of sex — your teen needs to feel heard and supported unconditionally.
"You know, 'We love and accept you,'" says Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen.com, an online sex ed clearinghouse that's packed with info on relationships, bodies and sexuality.
Corinna says that if your child is asking tough questions that you can't answer or is sharing information that makes you uncomfortable, "then you can follow that up with, 'We don't get it! And we need to find out more about this.'"
To be clear, though, "we don't get it" is not the same as "we don't believe you" or a dismissive "you'll grow out of it." In fact, Breuner says, if a tween or teen is exploring a different sexual orientation or gender identity, it's probably not a phase, according to the latest research. "My generation of physicians was taught that, which was wrong. And so the likelihood of somebody growing out of it is extremely low."
Corinna says that in these moments, parents should also resist the urge to swoop in with their big feelings or a quick fix.
"Young people don't really have any power but the power that we give them. And if we present ourselves all the time as the ones that know the most, the ones that are the experts at everything and the ones that have all the power, you know, it's hard for us to have good relationships with them."
McGrath-Skrzydlewski had always made good listening a hallmark of her parenting style, and so, one sunny afternoon when her daughter, Lily, was 12, she mostly listened as Lily told her that she identifies as pansexual — meaning gender and sexuality aren't determining factors in whom she is attracted to.
No matter how strong their relationship, though, it was still hard, Lily says. "So awkward. It was just me sitting on the floor pointing to a pride flag."
"As I was watching her struggle to find the words," McGrath-Skrzydlewski says, "I just felt some really deep sympathy, because it felt painful in a way that, from where I sat, it didn't have to be that. And I was just sitting there ready to hold her, right, for whatever she needed."
Listen, love and be humble. It won't prevent the difficult conversations of adolescence, but it will help you — and your child — get through them.
3. Teens need to understand the basics of a healthy relationship.
One sexpert we interviewed, Daniel Rice at Rutgers University, likened sex to algebra. In other words, it's advanced. Just as addition and subtraction are fundamental math skills necessary for algebra, listening and communication skills, as well as abiding respect for the needs and rights of others, are foundational to a healthy, happy sex life — and a healthy, happy life in general.
"I can't have, you know, a meaningful lesson with young people on what relationship goals may look like when we haven't established the foundation of, like, how to negotiate with a partner, how to communicate, how to select a partner who's respectful of you," says Brittany McBride, senior program manager of sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works on sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health.
If you're lucky, you can model these skills at home. It's also a good idea to talk affirmatively about relationship ideals: about kindness and consideration, about how people in a family or a couple take care of each other, resolve conflicts, admit fault and show forgiveness.
And Corinna at Scarleteen has another tip: Middle school is a great time for parents to start paying more attention to their kids' relationships with peers. Because, by middle school, many platonic, adolescent relationships are "not even dysfunctional. They're just flat-out abusive."
Abusive verbally, emotionally and even physically — because of tweens' brain chemistry, because our popular culture makes cruelty seem cool and because too many kids don't experience consistent, loving, respectful relationships at home.
So, Corinna says, pay attention to your kids' interactions, and if you notice something that crosses the line, "say, you know, 'I just overheard' or 'I just saw' or whatever the thing was that you did. And then you say, 'How do you feel about that? Is it OK with you?' And then have a talk about it."
A cornerstone of any healthy relationship is consent, and tweens and teens especially need to understand that sexual consent has to be enthusiastic, ongoing and specific. No one can consent to sex if they're drunk or wasted. And a yes at the beginning of the night is not a yes at the end of the night. Kids need to know that they need to check in with their partner.
4. Sex feels good. Don't try to hide that from your kids.
Sex ed usually emphasizes the risks of sex — like infections, untimely pregnancy and sexual assault — but rarely explores the big reason people choose to have sex in spite of those risks: pleasure. This gives adolescents an incomplete, arguably inaccurate understanding of sex, and that's a problem, say our experts.
Instead, tweens need to hear about the risks as well as the fact that most partnered sex isn't for reproduction but for recreation and connection. Knowing that, says McBride, "removes a little bit of that mystifying, really cool, like, 'What is this I hear so much about?' aspect of sex."
Parents can also share a more positive message about self-pleasure. Nix the shame and stigma, says Breuner. Masturbation, she says, "is not ugly and gross. It's important to establish your own sexuality and be able to figure out what gives you pleasure so that when you are at a place when you want someone else to give you pleasure, you know what to tell them."
Corinna suggests easing into the conversation about pleasure by talking about your favorite dessert or a song you want to listen to nonstop. "Just like all of those things, sex is one of those things that people, by and large, do ... to make ourselves and/or each other feel good."
5. Porn isn't real life, and your kids need to hear that.
Realistically, says Breuner, you may not be able to keep your kids away from pornography altogether. Remember, she caught her son using her laptop to browse porn. Even if they can't access it at home, she says, they'll still likely run into it at a friend's house or at school. So you need to talk about how porn can give them wrong ideas about sex, pleasure and relationships.
Mainstream commercial pornography has little use for consent and often features scenes of pain, control and coercion, as well as unrealistic depictions of female enjoyment. There's also a narrow range of body types and little body hair, giggling or awkwardness.
And it's not just porn. Kids need a reality check when it comes to the broader category of what Corinna calls "sexual media." Whether it's bikini models on Instagram or hawking beer on TV, the problems are similar. Teens need to hear it from you: Sexual media is fantasy. It's people doing a job for money, and that's not how sex works in the real world.
A 2015 study from Texas Tech University found that when parents talked with their middle schoolers early and consistently about porn, sharing their own values, it made a lasting difference. When those young teens became college students, they were less likely to view porn, and if they dated someone who did, it had a less negative impact on their self-esteem.
6. You may want to get backup.
We say this often on Life Kit, but especially when it comes to adolescents and sex, you may need backup. Corinna says parents can find it hard to talk to their kids even — or especially — if they have experienced something similar.
"Some of the parents that are the most scared about their kids being queer or trans are parents who are queer or trans, because they know what they went through. They are accepting. Of course they're accepting, but they're also terrified," Corinna says.
Parents who have their own experiences with sexual assault, abuse or abortion can also find it that much harder to respond when children come to them with difficult questions. Don't be afraid to enlist the help of a close family friend, another family member, pediatrician, trusted teacher or coach.
Parents can also find help and resources at health centers, YMCAs and teaching hospitals. Sometimes places of worship host sex education workshops. Books can also be a valuable resource, though make sure they're up to date.
Life Kit recommends:
- Scarleteen.com is aimed at teenagers and emerging adults.
- Heather Corinna's most recent book is S.E.X.
- Amaze animated videos are especially good for 10- to 13-year-olds. Topics range from puberty to sexually transmitted infections.
- Unhushed.org is a comprehensive sex education website.
- Six Minute Sex Ed is a podcast for parents, teachers and caring adults.
This story was focused on kids entering puberty through high school, if you're looking for tips on talking to children who are younger, check out our previous episode.
We'd love to hear from you — if you've got a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.