When I think back to the sex education I got as a teen, the only memory I can recall is being scarred for life by a super graphic video of a woman giving birth... and then expelling the placenta. Like most other Americans, my health class was hardly an open forum for discussion about the ins-and-outs of sex; instead, it was more like a weeks-long PSA against drinking, drugs, and sexual activity of any kind. I got lucky because my mom is an open-minded nurse who was a great resource for anything health-related, but unfortunately not everyone has a parent or trusted adult with whom they feel comfortable discussing a topic as personal as sex. Talking to young people about sex and relationships might seem awkward, but the reality is that there should be *nothing* awkward about empowering teens to make informed choices about their bodies and their sex lives.
According to a new survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP), 93 percent of all adults think that young people should have a trusted adult or network to provide them with information and guidance on topics like sex, love, relationships, or birth control — but only 62 percent of people aged 18-24 said they've given that kind of advice to someone younger than them.
"We all need someone in our lives that we can turn to that can help guide us through the complexities in our world," Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of NCPTUP, tells Bustle. "However, especially young people, and young women, need an adult who can help them understand that they have the power to decide their futures. A trusted adult can provide not only guidance, but the knowledge needed to make those important decisions young people have to make, which include sex and relationships."
Talking to teens about sex isn't a job that should fall solely on parents' shoulders and, in fact, some teens might feel more at ease going to a young adult for advice instead. If you want to be a resource for the young people in your life — whether it's a cousin, sibling, or mentee — here are eight tips for giving sex and relationships advice to young people in a way that's informative, open-minded, and constructive.
1Don't Freak Out
If a younger person in your life approaches you with a sex-related question, the worst thing you can do is panic — and show it. "Don’t freak out," Ehrlich says. "If you do, that’s what they’ll remember most: how upset you were or how awkward it is, not necessarily what you said."
Although it might be a shock to know that someone who, in your eyes, is still a "child" is thinking about sex, the reality is that it's totally normal for younger teens to have sex on the brain. Instead of freaking out, appreciate that they had the courage to approach you in the first place — it shows that they want to be educated about sex, and that they trust you to help them navigate those murky waters.
2Start The Conversation Early
There's no wrong time to start talking about health, sex, and relationships. You can always be an open-minded, sex-positive influence in a younger person's life — you just need to know how to tailor the conversation according to their age.
"When the young person in your life is a toddler, you can teach them the anatomically correct names for body parts," Ehrlich says. "When they’re in school, open up discussions about consent and agency over their bodies that are age-appropriate. When [the] young person gets older, you can age up the message to talk about puberty, hormones, and healthy relationships — all of which helps pave the way for ongoing conversations about sex, contraception, and pregnancy."
3Be Approachable And Available
The most important thing you can communicate to the young people in your life? That you're someone who they can always rely on to talk comfortably, confidentially, and candidly about anything related to sex and relationships.
"Being an approachable and askable adult means that the young people in your life know that you are always there or on call; that you are not only available but welcome conversations; and that questions and conversations about sex, love, relationships and contraception scare you not at all," Ehrlich says.
4Remember You Don't Have To Have All The Answers
It's OK not to have all the answers — no one expects you to be a walking biology textbook. Instead, spend some time getting informed about age-appropriate resources you can point them to in the event that they ask you a head-scratching question.
"If you’re asked a question and you don’t have an answer handy, let them know you’ll get back to them — and then get back to them!" Ehrlich says. "Share trusted resources with them that they can explore on their own. One of the best resources is Bedsider.org, this web site provides complete information about sex and relationships and birth control and is specifically geared to young people. In addition, StayTeen.org is another terrific resource for young people ages 13-17."
5Don't Judge Or Shame Them
You should never shame anyone, regardless of their age, for the decisions they make about their bodies and sex lives. But it's especially important not to judge or shame young people, because that will only make them feel like they can't open up to you in future — and will reinforce the notion that sex and pleasure is something taboo and shameful.
"When they ask those questions, be open, listen and thank them for coming to you to start the conversation," Ehrlich says. "Remember not to be shameful, judgmental, or lecturing. Provide your opinion and give reasons why you feel that way."
6Don't Make Assumptions About Their Sex Life
If a teen is curious about sex, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're already doing it. Instead of jumping to conclusions, listen with an open mind, and answer any questions they might have. That way, when they do start having sex, they'll feel comfortable coming to you to talk about it.
"Don't assume that just because the young person in your life has a question about something sexual, it means they’re already doing it," Ehrlich says. "Bring up relationships — and sex — before someone is in the picture already. That way, when romantic relationships are a reality, you’ve already covered the basics and can adapt for each situation."
7Talk About Contraception
Without a doubt, one of the most important things you can inform young people about is contraception and how it works. Whether or not they're currently having sex, educating teens about the different options for birth control will help them be prepared to prevent unplanned or unwanted pregnancy in the future.
"Teaching young people about birth control — how it works, where to get it, how to get it, why it’s important — is not the same as giving young teens permission to have sex," Ehrlich says. "It helps them be most prepared when they eventually do."
8Don't Leave Boys Out Of The Conversation
When it comes to sex education, it's equally important to talk to young women as it is to talk to young men. All young people are curious about sex and relationships, and have important questions that deserve to be answered by a trusted adult. "Don't assume you only need to talk with girls," Ehrlich says. "Boys need guidance about sex, love, relationships and pregnancy prevention just as much as girls do."
Navigating the world of sex and relationships is super tricky, and can be even more so for teenagers who may still be uneducated and inexperienced in those areas. "These sorts of conversations set young people on the path of having the power to make well-informed decisions," Ehrlich says. "We need to make sure that young people understand and believe that their futures matter and that it is possible for them to achieve their hopes and dreams. Simply put, being a trusted adult, providing that guidance and support, empowers young people to make the best decision for them when it concerns, sex, relationships and the use of birth control."
If you're open to it, being a resource for young people who want to talk about sex can be really rewarding — and can have a lasting impact on their wellbeing, too.