Jul 13 / Simcha

Why Parents are Reluctant to Speak about Sex (L. Steinberg)

Psychologist, professor and social sociologist Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned expert on the psychological development of adolescents. Steinberg urges parents to talk to their teens about sex before they become sexually active.

I include here his article on the subject that appeared Psychology Today (Feb. 2011),  in two separate postings. Part 1 examines why parents are reluctant to speak about sex.  Part 2 will look at how parents can overcome their own hesitations (and their young adolescent’s resistance) to talk to their young adolescent about sex.

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Study after study shows that teenagers want more information about sex than they are getting. When asked how they would choose to learn about sex, nine out of ten say from their parents-yes, their parents-not from their friends or a health class or books. When asked if they actually talk to their parents about sex, however, only about one in ten says yes. The reason, according to most teenagers, is that their parents hold back.

Why are parents reluctant to discuss sex with their teenagers?


I don’t want to encourage sex.

Many parents believe that talking to young people about sex will lead to premature sexual activity; that children will interpret their parents’ willingness to talk as permission to become sexually involved. Both beliefs are false. Researchers who have studied this question extensively find no evidence-repeat, none-that sex education, from whatever source, increases sexual activity. What they do find is that lack of education increases unsafe sex. The message children get from discussions of sex is the message you communicate. If you say that you do not think teenagers should have sex, your child will hear you. He or she may not agree with you, but if you say nothing, you will never learn what your child thinks, nor will your teen know where you stand.


My child knows more than I do.

Some parents believe that they don’t need to discuss sex because their children already know whatever they need to know, from sex education in school or other sources. And some young adolescents are convinced they “know it all.” They don’t. The sex education provided in a typical junior or senior high school consists of a total of five to ten hours of instruction and/or discussion. The emphasis is usually on anatomy and physiology-the “plumbing.”

Sexual feelings and sexual relationships-the issues that concern adolescents most-are rarely mentioned. If contraception and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are introduced, it is often in the eleventh and twelfth grades, which may be after the fact. In short, sex education in school tends to be too little, too late, and boring. So young people turn to their friends, older siblings, and whatever books, magazines, and TV shows are available, and they come up with a few facts, a good many half-truths, and almost as many untruths. Your adolescent may have an advanced sexual vocabulary, but this doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about.


I don’t know how to begin.

Perhaps the main reason parents feel awkward about discussing sex is that they don’t know how. Today’s parents likely came of age after the sexual revolution, but sex may still have been a taboo subject in their homes. When the time comes to talk with their children, they don’t have role models for being parents of sexually open teenagers. In spite of what they think they should do, a part of them feels it is inappropriate to include frank sexual discussions in their child’s upbringing. One generation’s prohibitions have a way of becoming the next generation’s inhibitions.

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Part also 2:  How parents can (overcome their hesitations and) talk to their pre-teen about sex