Talking to Teens About Sex – Q&A with Dr. Amy Schalet and Brenda Wade, MSW

January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm  •  Posted in Healthy Parenting by  •  0 Comments

By Brenda C. Wade, MSW, LCSW


Amy Schalet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a specialist on adolescent sexuality and culture in comparative perspective. Her book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex was released on November 1, 2011, by the University of Chicago Press.

Brenda Wade, MSW is a social worker and the executive director of Achievement Services, Inc., a nonprofit organization which partners with schools to design and implement extended learning opportunities in the core subjects of reading, math and science to at-risk and low-performing students in urban school settings.   She is also a part-time as a high school social worker, consulting with childcare agencies on issues related to teens and children in foster care.

Q.  Dr. Schalet, how can parents and other adults talk with teenagers about sexuality and romantic relationships in more positive terms, while bolstering young people’s capacities to protect themselves against potential negative experiences and consequences?

The first step is to recognize that the majority of teenagers engage in some form of sexual intimacy before leaving high school, and that the question of under what conditions sex takes place is as important as whether it happens at all. Parents may feel most anxious about the question of whether “it” has happened and if so, whether “it” is still happening, but conversations may be easier if parents pay more attention to what I call the ABCD’s of adolescent sexuality: Autonomy, Building healthy relationships, Connectedness, and Diversity.

We tend to dramatize teenage sexuality through the assumption that young people are unable to exercise control over their urges and interactions. But they can do so, provided we help teens develop autonomy in relation to sexuality. Too often, we emphasize only one aspect of autonomy: saying “no” to sex. But to fully understand and communicate about boundaries, young people need to also understand their sexual wishes, distinguish these wishes from others’ expectations, decide how to act on their desires, and take responsibility for their choices. We can encourage such self-knowledge and ownership by urging teens to move slowly when they explore, progressing only when both partners feel comfortable and really want it. We might ask teens: “What do think ‘being ready’ for sex means?” “When is a couple ready?” “If you felt ready, where would you get condoms and other contraceptives?”

 Q.  Ms. Wade, as a school social worker, have you observed parents’ reluctance to discuss their child’s sexuality ? How has that reluctance impacted the teens you counsel?

My work with the parents of the students I service has been enriching, educational and rewarding.  Almost all of the parents possess a deep desire for their children to succeed, academically and socially and to be able to provide them with the tools and mechanisms necessary to achieve such success.  However, I have experienced reluctance by a number of those parents to directly discuss their child’s sexuality as it relates to their school experiences, adolescent experiences and social experiences.  It tends to become challenging for some parents to address those behaviors, particularly when they generally indicate a possible communication disconnect between parent and child and/or when that subject matter reignites uncomfortable, awkward or painful feelings within the parents from their own experiences.

This reluctance has significantly impacted the teens in that they oftentimes look toward their parents or caregiver for guidance, influence or example on unnerving issues such as sexuality and that reluctance leaves them feeling isolated from the family subsystem, at times impairing the parent/child relationship.  The inability to discuss such a topic of importance with one’s parent, places the teens at risk of poor/negative decision-making, potential decrease in academic and/or social functioning or increase in anxious or depressive feelings.

Q.  Dr. Schalet, how does our American culture affect parents’ comfort level discussing sexual issues with their teens?

In our society, we have few cultural scenarios for discussing healthy intimacy that don’t revolve around marriage, yet we do not want teens or even those in their early twenties to embark on marriage. While we send the message that marriage can wait, relationships do not, and young people need to learn that building healthy relationships requires mutual interest, respect, care and trust. To start that conversation, we might ask: “Among your friends, are there couples you admire? Why? What makes that relationship special?” “Are there couples whose relationship bothers you? What might improve their relationship?” If romance proves too loaded a topic, we might start by asking teenagers about their friendships.

Parents are often troubled by teenage sexuality because they feel it is an area in which they have little control, as many teens, particularly girls, hide their sexual lives from their parents — for fear of disappointing them or being judged. However, maintaining parent-teen connectedness is critical for teenage wellbeing, sexually and otherwise. Experts often urge parents to clearly communicate their values, but I would add the recommendation to state clearly: “The most important thing to me is my relationship with you; even if you behave differently from what I would wish or believe is right for you, I want you to feel that you can talk to me.” By keeping that connection strong and the conversation open, parents are able to have more influence.

Teenage sexuality is an arena of life in which Americans see some of our greatest personal and cultural diversity. That diversity can be hard to talk about; it encompasses a range of orientations and beliefs that many parents find troubling. At the same time, it offers parents and educators a great opportunity to enter into conversations about accepting and respecting difference within a community: as much as teens want to be and look like everyone else in their peer group, sexuality is an arena in which each person is unique. And young people need to learn that teenagers range in the pace of their physical and emotional development; vary in sexual orientations, and may hold different beliefs about sex based on their religion and culture.

Q.  Ms. Wade, how do you adjust your methods of interacting with parents and teens when addressing uncomfortable, complex sexual issues?


In social work, the belief is in starting the work “where the client is”.  I begin by understanding the level of comfort of the parent and the teen with me and with the subject matter.  My methods of interacting with parents and teens when addressing uncomfortable sexual issues are devised out of assessing the immediate needs of the parents and teens with respect to the issue of teen sexuality.  Some parents and teens are far more comfortable with engaging in open dialogue than others.  These families have histories of regularly engaging in conversations of a delicate, complex nature.  In contrast, some parents and teens have never or very rarely engaged in conversation regarding basic issues, resulting in difficulty in addressing more complex issues, such as sexuality.  In assessing the comfort level of the parent and/or teen, I can then adjust my level and method of interaction appropriately.

Q.  Dr. Schalet, what is the best way to eliminate parents squeamishnes about sex and their teens?

The ABCD’s I described above go far beyond what we usually think of as “the talk.” Like all healthy relationships, they take time. Conversations about knowing when you’re ready, building good relationships, staying connected despite disappointment, and honoring uniqueness in oneself and in others take more than a one-time talk. But when placed in the context of human emotion, connections, and respect for difference, sexuality can lose some of the “ick” factor that drives parents and teens to avoid the topic altogether. When we focus on young people’s emergent autonomy, their burgeoning relationships, on our ongoing connection with our children, and our recognition of diversity, we can educate from hope rather than fear.

Q.  Ms. Wade, according to a Vital Signs report released by the Centers for Disease Control last year, the rate of teen pregnancies is the lowest in two decades.  Do you think any of the decline can be attributed to more open communication between parents and their teens?

I do believe that some of the decline in teen pregnancies can be attributed to more open parent/teen communications.  Although it remains a challenging subject matter, teen sexuality, in general, is more openly discussed as opposed to a decade ago.  With society seemingly relaxing its “value” toward sexuality in general (couples co-habitation and engaging in unmarried parenthood without societal consequence, schools more openly embracing sex education, pop culture spotlighting teen pregnancy and sexuality), it provides an opportunity and “permission” for parents to engage their teens in this sort of conversation.

Dr. Schalet’s book is available at

Product Details  Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (2011)



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