The New Sex Talk to Have With Teens — and Why It’s More Important Than Ever

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mom talking to daughter about sex after roe
Think of discussing sex, risk of pregnancy, and emergency contraception as an ongoing conversation, say experts, not a one-time chat.
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Talking to kids about sex isn’t any parent’s idea of a good time, but it’s more important than ever in a post-Roe world. These days, the conversation shouldn’t be just about the logistics of how babies are made but also about the state of reproductive rights after the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in June of 2022. After all, with the ending of federally protected abortion rights, psychological ripple effects have been occurring in people throughout the country, says Debra Mollen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. “People are frightened, anxious, disheartened, and angry about the decision to overturn Roe.”

In particular, teens and young adults who are newly sexually active — or on the verge of becoming so — are anxious about the potential consequences in their lives. “They’re terrified of what this means for their reproductive health and autonomy,” says Candice Nicole Hargons, PhD,?an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Some are wondering: If their birth control fails and an unplanned pregnancy occurs, will they be able to obtain an abortion or get access to abortion medication? Should they stock up on Plan B in case something goes awry during sex? Is this a first step toward losing birth-control options, in general? What will the loss of healthcare rights mean for LGBTQ+ healthcare?

Beyond the Birds and the Bees: It’s Important to Talk About Sex and Sexual Health

This new level of anxiety is occurring against the backdrop of weak sex education in the United States. “Most states only provide abstinence-only sex ed — that’s not the way the world works,” says Dr. Hargons. As a result, she says, “the onus is on parents to introduce the concepts of good sex, sexual health, and reproductive justice” to their children.

RELATED: 9 Things to Do Before Your Teen Leaves for College: A Post-Roe Contraception Checklist

“It is an important conversation for everyone’s kids because they all need to be thinking this through,” says Hargons, who studies sexual health and healing racial trauma. “People often have a stereotype of who is likely to need an abortion — it could happen to any of our kids.”

Mustering the Courage for the Sex Ed Convo

Some parents feel uncomfortable thinking about their teens or young adults even having sex lives, let alone the prospect of them needing an abortion. And some parents may be reluctant to talk about these issues with their kids but it’s important to. “Just like exercise is uncomfortable but healthy for you, the same is true of these conversations,” Hargons says. After all, as a parent, you’ll want to help your kids have a healthy, responsible sex life and make the best decisions for themselves when it comes to their reproductive health.

To prepare for the conversation, it helps to write down key points you want to make in advance and make a list of trusted resources such as Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute, and the American Psychological Association?where they can get reliable information, Hargons suggests. It’s also a good idea to talk to other parents who may be having this conversation with their teens and young adults to see how they’re broaching it.

Have the Sex Talk Again and Again

People “need to stop thinking of this as a conversation you have once and start thinking of it as a conversation you have often and in bite-size pieces,” says Julie Bindeman, PsyD,?a reproductive psychologist and codirector of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. Before diving in, “own your own humanity on this — say that you might stumble with this,” advises Dr. Bindeman.

You can “start broadly, talking about relationships then sex, including closeness, intimacy, and consent,” Bindeman says. “Framing it broadly provides a lot of wiggle room for the conversation.”

Alternatively, you could use the news and the current political landscape to broach the subject.

“Have a broader discussion about this being the only time in U.S. history that a right that had been given and withstood the test of time has been removed,” Dr. Mollen suggests. Then, you can talk about how and why this reversal came about, why it’s problematic, and how it’s affecting people.

RELATED: 5 Things Health Experts Want You to Know About Abortion Bans

During the conversation, “ask open-ended questions without judgment,” Bindeman advises. When discussing the fact that some states are restricting people’s reproductive options, you might ask: “What do you think about that?”

Besides talking about this as a legal, political, or human rights issue, it helps to address the subject through “a medical lens,” Hargons says, framing abortion as an option in healthcare that some people may need for a variety of medical reasons. Then, segue into the fact that getting an abortion has become more difficult in some states and encourage them to know where abortions are still available and where they can get Plan B (aka?emergency contraception or “the morning after pill,” which can be taken to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex).

“Explain that regardless of what happens, you’ll be there to support them,” says Mollen. “Make sure they have access to contraception and they know how to use it correctly and consistently.” While experts agree that young adults shouldn’t be stockpiling Plan B, Mollen thinks it’s a good idea to have one package on hand in case they need it. “If they need to use it,” she says, “they can replace it.”

Then, encourage them to think about what they would do if things went awry. You might ask: “Have you talked with your partner about what you would do if you got pregnant?” It may help to ask, “What would you tell a friend who got into this situation?” “These are young adults and they have the ability to problem-solve,” Bindeman says. But they also may have fears that are slightly off base, which is why it’s important to “listen to kids’ concerns,” she says. If they’re worried that they’ll get arrested if they have an abortion, “you can say, "That’s not what we’re seeing and I will do whatever I can to protect you,” she adds.

Ultimately, Bindeman says, it helps to think of having this conversation as a way to empower our kids so they don’t feel helpless.

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