Every one of us has our own sexual story. Whether we were virgins when we got married, promiscuous at a young age, or anything in between, our experiences shape our view of ourselves and sexuality. We may regret our past or celebrate it, but it’s part of who we are.
It’s also part of how we parent. We may wish that our kids follow the same path we did. Or we may be determined that they make different choices. Whatever our druthers, our experiences—especially early sexual experiences—color how we talk to our kids (or don’t talk to them) about sex. This may or may not work out the way we want.
One of my therapist colleagues had a client who’d had a child at 16. Being a teen single mother had made her life much more difficult, and she was determined that her own daughter wouldn’t go down that road. So as the daughter became a teenager, the mom drew a firm line. The daughter had a strict curfew and many limitations on where she could go and what she could do. She wasn’t allowed to date. The mother never talked about sexuality, because the daughter didn’t need to know about that until she was older.
Well, you can guess what happened. The daughter rebelled against her mother’s excessive strictness, began sneaking out at night, and ended up pregnant at 16.
This is an extreme example, of course. But it illustrates how our own stories influence our parenting—especially when we don’t talk about our stories.
Things might have gone very differently if this mom had been honest with her daughter about her experiences, both the difficulties of being a teen mother and how she came to get pregnant in the first place. What was it like to be with the father of her baby? Did dating/sleeping with him make her feel beautiful, desirable, sexy, mature? Was the actual sex pleasurable? or not? Did she not know about birth control, or not use it for some reason? What was it like to learn she was pregnant? What was the guy’s reaction? How did having a child so young affect her life?
This kind of conversation acknowledges both the risks of teen sexual activity (including heartbreak and the possibility of having child you’re not prepared to deal with) and the positives (if, say, the sex felt good, or the guy was hot and being with him made her feel special). Your teen will experience positive, exciting aspects of sexuality, because the truth is that sex can be great. Pretending it’s all bad just makes you look clueless. The power is in talking about the risks, the benefits, and the tradeoffs.
Even teens who roll their eyes at most things you say will likely be interested in hearing your story. This is stuff they probably don’t know about you, especially the parts about how it felt to be a teen in love, or in lust, or longing for love, or whatever you felt. Your story, good and bad, teaches things about sexual decision-making without being a lecture. It also shows that you can relate to what they’re thinking about or experiencing.
Without telling them what to do, you can tell your hopes and fears for them: “I don’t want you to have as tough a time as I did.” “I don’t want your heart to get broken.” “I don’t want you to have to make a difficult decision about whether to keep a baby.” “I don’t want you to have to quit school to pay child support.” “I hope you wait until you find a partner who really cares about you.” “I hope you can enjoy the fun of messing around for a long time, but save sex for the person you spend your life with.” “I hope you will always use protection.” These are messages teens can hear. There’s no guarantee they’ll act the way you want, but they’ll benefit from knowing what you’re thinking and why.
If it feels too much to tell something this personal to your teen, start by talking with your partner or a friend. What were your early experiences? As a result of them, what do you hope your teen will experience? Ask your friend to help you figure out ways to share key elements of your story with your kids, now or at some point.
Your kids will choose their own sexual path. But learning about your choices and the consequences may help them make better decisions along the way.