Skills for Youth
Communicating With Your Parent About Sexuality and Relationships
This article includes the following sections:
- a description of the skill and its essential components,
- suggestions for modeling or demonstrating the skill,
- suggestions for behavioral practice experiences for youth, and
- tips for teaching the skill effectively.
Since there are numerous models for any given skill, we have selected the model that, in our experience, has been most effective and easily learned by youth.
Description of the Skill
Pregnancy Prevention Education often teaches adolescents a variety of communication skills to enable them to talk with their peers about sexuality and sexual risk taking. We believe that effective programs also teach teens skills to talk with their parents about these topics. Talking with their parents about sexuality is important because parents can have a positive influence on their teens' attitudes, feelings and sexual risk taking behavior.
Although teens talk with their parents all the time, they may need some specific guidelines for talking with them about such sensitive and personal topics. Teaching teens the following communication skills can make conversations successful and worthwhile for both the teen and their parents.
The skill of communicating with parents about sexuality and relationships includes the following five components:
Step #1: Define the Topic.Think through what you want to talk about. Do you want information, do you want to share your feelings, do you want help with a problem, or do you just want a listening ear?
For example, do you want information about family beliefs, about contraception, sex before marriage, or abstinence, or do you want to talk about a fight you had with your boy/girlfriend, or do you just want to share something you learned in your family life class?
Step #2: Pick the Right Timing.Find a time when you both are free to listen and talk with one another. You may want to set a date to talk or wait until your parent has some quiet time, when they aren't focusing on work or household chores. You could say, "I have some things I want your opinion on. Could we find some time this evening to talk?"
Don't try to have a conversation while everyone is getting ready to leave the house in the morning or when things are the most hectic at home. If you already have a time when you often talk about personal things, that might be a good time to open the conversation. For example, you and your parent may talk while fixing dinner or driving to and from school. The bottom line is to find a time that feels comfortable for both of you.
Step #3: Talk Clearly.State clearly what you are thinking, feeling or concerned about. You might start the conversation by saying something like: "Lately I've been thinking about ...," or "Sometimes I've been worried about ...," or "Lately I've been confused about ..." and then say as clearly as you can what is on your mind.
It's okay to not always have the right words or to fumble a little bit. All of us have trouble talking about such personal and intimate topics -- even adults. Just say it the best you can. Sometimes as we talk, our thoughts and feelings become more clear.
Step #4: Ask for What You Want.This step relates back to Step #1. Do you want help from your parent, or do you just want them to listen and hear what you are thinking or feeling? If you can tell them early in the conversation what you want from them, you're much more likely to get it. Parents often are in the role of telling their kids what to do and often automatically take on that role. Therefore, if you just want someone to listen and not have the answers or tell you what to do, you may have to make that request early in the conversation.
Step #5: Listen.The final step to good communication is listening. Listen to what your parent has to say and follow up later when necessary. Often we are busy thinking about the next thing we want to say instead of carefully listening to the other person. Good listening means you focus on the other person and try to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Sometimes your parents say things you don't agree with or don't want to hear. The most successful communication happens when people not only say clearly what they think and feel but also try to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling.
In addition, you both may not say everything you want to in one conversation. Therefore, it's important to follow up with another conversation later as new thoughts and feelings emerge. You might start the follow-up conversation by saying something like: "Remember when we were talking about .. . ? Well, since then I've been thinking …"
For more information about effective listening, see the Skills for Youth activity on "Listening Skills."
Demonstration of the Skill
Before youth can effectively practice the skills for communicating with their parents about sexuality and relationships, they need to see each of the components described above modeled or demonstrated. Some suggestions for modeling each component include:
- Review each of the components described above and ask for volunteers to act out examples of an effective and ineffective use of each.
- Use a video that demonstrates effective communication with parents. Then have students describe how the skills were used and what made the communication effective.
- Using a scripted role play, demonstrate an effective parent/child communication with a volunteer from the class or group. Be sure that the role play models each of the five components listed above. Have youth explain what they saw and what made the communication effective. Ask them to identify each of the five components. Scripted role plays can be developed by youth or found in already published curricula.
Behavioral Practice of the Skill
Once youth have seen the components demonstrated several times, they are ready for individual behavioral practice. Some specific suggestions for practice include:
- In pairs or small groups of three or four, use scripted role plays to practice communicating with parents about a variety of topics. Have youth brainstorm a list of topics about which they would like to talk with their parents. Use this list to develop the role plays or use ones found in already published curricula.
- If the group is small, approach each youth with a different situation or topic and have them practice in front of the whole group. The group can coach each youth and give feedback on how effectively they used each of the five components.
- Give youth a homework assignment, asking them to try out these skills with their parents. Suggest that they start with a more general topic like talking about dating or romantic relationships in general. Once they get a little practice in using these skills, they can move to more personal or sensitive topics.
Note: These homework assignments should be optional, and the educator shouldn't require youth to share the conversations they had with their parent in class. Instead, youth could have a general discussion about how the skills did or didn't work and what they might do differently next time.
To maximize your effectiveness in teaching this skill, we suggest that you:
- Circulate among the youth while they are practicing, commenting on what they are doing well and giving them tips for communicating more effectively.
- Have youth use a checklist that outlines the five components so they can gently coach each other as they practice.
- Start with scripted role plays for practice so youth get used to using the skill. As youth become comfortable, have them practice without scripts.
- Debrief after each practice session identifying what went well and giving suggestions for overcoming the stumbling blocks or barriers.
- Connect the role plays to real life by making sure the situations and language are relevant and realistic. Ask youth for feedback, and make adjustments accordingly.
- Follow up with the lesson several times over the next few months asking youth how they are using the communication skills, what is working, and what needs more practice. Provide additional practice as necessary.
- Offer a course for parents on how to communicate with their teens. See Can We Talk? in the Topic in Brief on parent-child communication for a description of a parent education program developed by the National Education Association (NEA).