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Many parents feel uncomfortable talking with their teenagers about topics such as sex or drugs. But tricky conversations can give you the opportunity to guide your child towards sensible and responsible decisions.

Teen and adult with mobile phone

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Sexual orientation, sexual activity and bullying are the top three topics parents find difficult to discuss with their teenagers, according to Parentline.
  • Research shows that girls are more likely to talk to parents than boys, while younger teenagers are more likely to talk than older teenagers.
 

A tricky conversation covers any topic that might be embarrassing or controversial for either you or your child to discuss. It could also be something that might cause a heated discussion or a blow-up between the two of you.

Sex, sexual orientation, masturbation, drugs, alcohol, academic difficulties, work and money are all topics that families can find difficult to talk about. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable discussing these things.

Managing tricky conversations

There are no scripts for tricky conversations and difficult topics. But it’s a good idea to think about these topics before your child asks. That way, you might not be caught so off guard when your child asks a tricky question about sex while you’re driving!

Here are some tips to help you manage these conversations:

  • Try to stay calm. Be honest if you’re shocked by the topic, but reassure your child that you do want to discuss the issue. This can help your child feel he can talk to you about anything.
  • Make sure the first thing you say to your child is something that lets her know you’re happy that she wants to talk to you. For example, ‘I’m so happy that you trust me to help you with this’.
  • If you need a bit of time to cool down or gather your thoughts before you talk, set a time to talk later. Make sure it’s soon – don’t wait until the next day. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. Your child might go ahead without your input in the meantime.
  • Listen to your child. This means giving your child a chance to talk through what’s going on, without trying to fix the situation. Often, teenagers aren’t expecting you to fix things – they just want you to listen.
  • If your child wants your help with a tricky situation, read our article on problem-solving for steps to finding a workable solution.
  • If your child wants your opinion, let your child know how you see the situation rather than telling him what to do. For example, ‘I would prefer it if you didn’t have sex until you’re older. But if you’re going to, let’s talk about making sure it’s safe’.
  • Avoid being critical or judgmental, or getting emotional. If you need to let off steam, choose another adult to talk to when your child isn’t around.
  • Thank your child for coming to you.

A study on communication about sex found that teenagers are less anxious and are less likely to avoid talking to their parents about sex when parents are receptive to their teenagers’ ideas and opinions. Staying calm, casual and composed, and keeping things informal, can also help those lines of communication stay open.

Our Talking to Teens interactive guide explores some tricky parent and teenager situations. For example, you can see how different approaches to talking about a difficult issue can get different results.

Benefits of tricky conversations

Tackling tricky conversations together with your child is a sign that you have a healthy relationship.

It will help keep your relationship with your child close and trusting. Research shows that when parents are warm, accepting, nonjudgmental and uncritical, teenagers feel more connected to them and are more likely to discuss issues with them in the future.

If you know what’s going on in your child’s life, you’re better placed to help her manage difficult situations. Discussing difficult topics with you gives your child the opportunity to explore her choices and work out whether they’re the right ones for her.

Try not to avoid tricky conversations with your child. If you do, he might end up making choices that have negative consequences. For example, a sexually active teenager who doesn’t ask for advice about contraception might end up with an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection.

Teenagers are more embarrassed talking about sex than their parents are. If your child wants to talk about sex with you, it means her need for help or discussion is outweighing any discomfort she might be feeling.

When your child won’t talk

Some teenagers are very reluctant to start difficult conversations with their parents. This might be to do with age, gender or past experience. For example, some teenagers might have had an angry or disapproving response from their parents in the past. This can put teenagers off discussing controversial topics with their parents.

If your child doesn’t want to have difficult conversations with you, you could try the following:

  • Try to set aside some time each day to talk with your child. Ask her open-ended questions, and let her know that if she does want to talk, you’re happy to listen. This might help her feel more comfortable to come to you in future. You can read more in our article about staying connected with your child.
  • If your child won’t talk to you, it might be helpful to find another adult he can talk to. You could suggest a relative, teacher, counsellor or neighbour.

Video: handling tricky conversations

Download Video  29mb

Tricky conversations can come up when you least expect them. Talking about topics such as drugs, sex or bullying can be uncomfortable too – for both you and your child. But there are ways to handle these conversations in positive ways.

This short video demonstrates things you could do to handle tricky conversations with teenagers. Staying calm and really listening make a great start. You can also use these opportunities to help your child make responsible decisions.

 
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  • Last Updated 27-09-2010
  • Last Reviewed 24-09-2010
  • Afifi, T., Joseph, A., & Aldeis, D. (2008). Why can’t we just talk about it?: An observational study of parents’ and adolescents’ conversations about sex. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23, 689 – 721.

    Kerr, M., & Stattin, H. (2000). What parents know, how they know it, and several forms of adolescent adjustment: further support for a reinterpretation of monitoring.

    Ogle, S., Glasier, A., & Riley, S. (2008). Communication between parents and their children about sexual health. Contraception, 77, 283-288.

    Schouten, B. C., van den Putte, B., Pasmans, M., & Meeuwesen, L. (2007). Parent-adolescent communication about sexuality: The role of adolescents' beliefs, subjective norm and perceived behavioral control. Patient Education and Counselling, 66, 75-83.

    Smetana, J. G., Villalobos, M., Tasopoulos-Chan, M., Gettman, D. C., & Campione-Barr, N. (2009). Early and middle adolescents' disclosure to parents about activities in different domains. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 693-713.

    Tilton-Weaver, L., Kerr, M., Pakalniskeine, V., Tokic, A., Salihovic, S., & Stattin, H. (2010). Open up or close down: How do parental reactions affect youth information management? Journal of Adolescence. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2009.07.011