One of the top questions I’ve encountered from parents as an Ob/Gyn and health educator is: “How can I get my teen to come to me with questions and concerns about sex?”
While some parents and teens may have that near-perfect, open relationship that allows them to discuss sensitive issues like sex easily, my experience is that most don’t. There are many things that parents can do to create an environment in which their teen feels comfortable coming to them with questions about sex.
One of the most important traits a parent can possess is that of an “Approachable Parent.” This is a parent who encourages their teen to feel safe and comfortable bringing up sensitive concerns. The top five traits of an approachable parent listed below are based on the feedback I’ve received from parents and teens during seminar presentations since 1998 and in my clinical work.
1. A Nonjudgmental Outlook
If you find out your 14-year-old teen has been having sex, how are you supposed to react? Being nonjudgmental doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have an opinion or to be upset. What it means is that you don’t react externally by condemning or berating your teen. In this instance, you might choose to say something like “This is upsetting, let’s talk.” A judgmental response might sound something like, “How could you let this happen? That’s really stupid on your part!” A nonjudgmental response is more likely to leave your teen feeling that she/he can really talk to you about the situation.
2. A Listening Ear
This means really being attentive and listening actively, nodding your head or saying “yes” or “um hmm” to show that you are very interested in what’s being said. It also means using good eye contact with your teen and not interrupting.
It’s a good idea to ask your teen how she/he feels about the situation being discussed.
When concerns arise, flexibility and the willingness to consider several options are needed.
I strongly urge parents to be open to their teens talking to another close relative or an adult who is a close family friend about sex-related questions. I’ve seen parents react with hurt or anger at the thought of their teen turning to someone else. However, remember that the primary goal is that your teen be able to talk to a responsible adult who can give accurate information, not for you to always be in charge.
4. A Calm Demeanor
A calm demeanor will help you and your teen deal with what’s really important and to take more logical and meaningful steps in handling any situation.
For instance, if your 16-year-old-daughter told you she had an STI (sexually transmitted infection), a calm response might sound like this: “This is difficult news for me to hear. First of all, how are you feeling? I’m going to need a few moments to gather my thoughts together before we talk.”
As they say, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Maintaining a sense of humor, especially during the teen years, might seem difficult. The truth is that while early teen sex, teen pregnancy, and STIs are serious issues, there is room for humor when it comes to parenting, teen dating, and relationships. Many parents will appreciate Arnold Glasgow’s remark, “Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.”
What these five traits highlight is the concept that being an approachable parent means being the type of parent you wanted as a teen. It’s really that simple!
Sheila Overton, M.D., FACOG, is an ob/gyn and author of “Before It’s Too Late: What Parents Need to Know About Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention”, available at www.droverton.org. Dr. Overton ran a teen pregnancy prevention program in Los Angeles for more than 10 years and is currently in private practice in Maryland. Follow her on Twitter: @DrOverton