Talking to Kids About Sex, Drugs and Other Topics We Avoid

Graffiti on wall with drawing of hearts saying "with love the kids" with blue sky above

The complexity of parenting

Parenting is tough. Every parent knows that there are a million opinions on how to do it better. Some of these opinions are helpful, many are not, and others are just opportunities to doubt yourself and feel inadequate.  

Some of the more challenging issues for parents occur when there appears to be a conflict between a child's need to learn, grow, and experiment and a parent's responsibility to keep their kid safe. Since fear is such a powerful motivator, when these tricky issues arise parents may err on the side of being overprotective and authoritarian - saying "no" without having fully evaluated the risks and rewards. 

Overprotectiveness can inhibit a child's sense of autonomy and creative exploration, whereas, being too relaxed and accommodating can expose kids to unnecessary risks that may have serious consequences. Finding a balance or middle ground requires thoughtful consideration of child's age and maturity and the possible risks that kids are exposed to at school and in their neighbourhoods. No one can get this balance right all the time.

The danger of avoidance and denial

With trickier topics such as experimenting with sexuality, drugs, and alcohol the consequences of over-reacting or under-reacting can be quite serious. Unfortunately, a common third option is denial and avoidance - denying that "my kid" could be experimenting with (insert scary possibility here_____)  and avoiding talking about these often uncomfortable topics with them.

Denial and avoidance are particularly dangerous when it comes to sex, drugs and alcohol, as kids learn that these topics are taboo and that they should not ask about them. Not feeling safe asking parents about these important topics means that kids will get the bulk of their information from peers in the schoolyard.

Beyond right and wrong

When choices are complex and scary we crave simplicity and order. One of the unhelpful ways that we try to make issues less confusing is to turn them into moralistic judgments. Instead of engaging in complex risk analyses and figuring out strategies to meet multiple needs (safety, exploration, and learning) we may turn these decisions into issues of right and wrong, good and bad. Good deeds are encouraged, bad deeds are punished.

For example, a teenager who is being sexual with her boyfriend is caught by her parents and then scolded and grounded for being "too young" to be sexual. Obviously she doesn't think she is too young or she wouldn't be doing it. By deciding for her that she is too young and then punishing her she may "learn the error of her ways" but more likely this painful experience with her parents will create a rupture in the extraordinarily important parent-child bond and lead her to be sneakier when having sex with her boyfriend in the future.

The disapproval and rupture in the parent-child bond may lead her to being less safe as she no longer trusts that she can share her experiences, questions, and concerns without being judged and punished. The broken trust deprives the parents of a close relationship with their daughter and deprives the daughter of her parents' valuable knowledge and experience about how to be emotionally and physically safe in sexual relationships.

Openness and good information

Can your child be honest with you about the pressures in their social group or the desires that they have to try new things that may scare you? Can they trust that if they do come to you around the trickier issues that they are wrestling with that you will try to help them figure out what to do rather than scold or punish them?

While it is part of a parent's job to set limits, it is also very important that kids are given good information and are involved in setting their own limits, as this is ultimately what they will need to be doing as they become adults. Good information about bodies and sex reduces the likelihood that kids will develop fear, shame and confusion about normal sensations and experiences and increases the likelihood that they will make safe choices.

The same goes for drugs and alcohol. The idea that drugs, sex, or underage drinking is "bad" will not satisfy many teens and the threat to limit their freedom if they don't do what they've been told is likely to lead to power struggles or deception to avoid unwanted consequences. Kids need honest accurate information and help in figuring out how to evaluate risks to make healthy decisions.

How do I do that?

Open dialogue doesn't mean that we stop trying to protect our kids. There are good reasons to be concerned about kids getting hurt, taken advantage of, or damaging their bodies and minds with drugs, alcohol and sex. The question is "how can I best keep them safe?" Their buy-in or participation in creating limits increases the likelihood of compliance and honesty - which increases the chances of their being safe. 

Try to imagine how you might be able to talk about these concerns in a way that still makes room for their opinions (e.g. "I am worried that something could happen to you if you are drinking. Do you worry that you could get hurt? Why not? Do you have any ideas on how to prevent something bad from happening or at least be able to let me know if you are not safe?)

If you cannot agree on the risks, you can turn the conversation or potential conflict into an opportunity for learning and collaboration instead of a power struggle. Ask them to do some research on the risks associated with these issues and how they might manage those risks and then come back to you with that information. You may still end up making a decision that they don't like but they are more likely to feel that you are understanding them and valuing their input and therefore respect the final decision. 

Obstacles to open dialogue

While we may aspire to parent with this level of openness and respect, obstacles get in the way. Beyond the real obstacles of time, energy, and stress that come with juggling parenting responsibilities, careers, and other realities of life, we also come up against our own baggage from how we were raised and our inherited cultural beliefs about morality.   

As adults it is usually our own fears, shame and confusion that are the biggest obstacles to creating an atmosphere of openness and respect with children. Our fear, shame and confusion will also make it harder to decide what information to share and which limits are appropriate.

When it comes to sex, shame about our own bodies and sexuality can be communicated through a reluctance to talk about sex or through scolding of a child's questions and sensual explorations. Similarly, a healthy relationship with one's body is taught through our own healthy attitudes about bodies and sexuality and through positive and honest dialogue.

If you find yourself confused or apprehensive to have these conversations, it may be helpful to discuss your concerns with your partner, a trusted friend, or a therapist. Whenever possible we want to spare our children from inheriting the shame and misinformation that we may have inherited from our own upbringings. 

Be real and roll with the punches

Just as kids make mistakes and we have to pick them up and reassure them that it is going to be okay, parents need to have license to be imperfect too. Sometimes you will over-react and at other times under-react. You will avoid saying something or maybe say too much and regret it later. Other times, there is simply not enough energy or time in the day to do the things that you know would be in the best interest of your kids. 

An important part of creating an atmosphere of openness and respect is learning how to be compassionate about your own limitations and shortcomings. Being harshly critical of your imperfections just makes it harder to be the parent you want to be and makes it harder to take responsibility for your mistakes. 

Despite noble efforts, kids become keenly aware of their parents imperfections. Our attempts to hide our mistakes teaches kids that it is not okay to point them out or acknowledge their own shortcomings. Through self-compassion and humility we make our lives a little easier and give kids permission to acknowledge that they need help too. 

Therapist Nat Roman

Nat Roman is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy and a BA in Psychology and additional specialized training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) processes, community based restorative conflict circles, and fifteen plus years studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation practices and Buddhist psychology. In an earlier stage of life Nat worked as a professional musician and strongly believes that creativity is an essential part of life, whether one is engaged in a formal creative discipline, problem solving, or attempting to get kids off to school in the morning.