I believe this is not a one-time conversation, rather a series of on-going discussions at age-appropriate times. As uncomfortable as it seems, I want to be the person dialoguing with my children about such a crucial topic and opening up the lines of communication between us.
One of the most difficult conversations that moms have with their daughters is about sex — not just the birds and bees, but the real deal: oral sex, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, peer pressure, sexual assault and more. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a mom of two teenagers and an OB-GYN who’s a recurring host on The Doctors, shares her advice about how, who, and when to have an honest and open conversation.
Q: At what age is it appropriate for parents to start having a conversation with their daughter about dating? And what’s the best way to broach the subject?
My short answer: before you think it’s necessary! The more familiar this topic is as an open dialogue between a mom and daughter, the easier it will be. A good icebreaker is to ask about her friends: “Are your friends starting to date? What do you think about that?” A recent study showed that the most powerful factor in a teen becoming sexually active is not the element of peer pressure, but rather what the teen’s opinion of her friends’ behavior is.
Q: Who’s the best person for the job (if there’s an option):
Mom, Dad, or both?
That depends on the family dynamic. Some dads may be better at having these kinds of talks than moms! It doesn’t need to be assigned to one parent or the other. It can be both, or Mom and Dad can take turns. There are many unconventional types of families these days, and so it really depends on who feels more comfortable having this kind of conversation. The key is to be consistent in the content of the message and in the fact that there is nothing that your teenage daughter can’t ask you. You might not know the answer, but you always listen and help her through the process.
Q: As the daughter gets older, how should the dating conversation change?
With age comes different exposures and different risks. By mid- to late adolescence, many teens have been exposed to sex and drugs, if not directly, then through their peers — they may not have done it, but they know people who have. By mid- to late adolescence (15 and older), teenage girls should know about sex, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and emotional and physical abuse. They should know how to spot the warning signs of abuse or sexual pressure, and they should know what to do if they are ever attacked. I have told my own teenage daughter that after a sexual assault, it is important for the victim NOT to shower or change clothes because forensic evidence could be destroyed. Older teenage girls should know about emergency contraception and how to use it. They should have a health care provider whom they like and trust and should feel comfortable accessing that person directly if they need help and don’t feel comfortable talking to a parent. And lastly, but certainly not least, a dating conversation should also include love and respect.
Q: How can a mother encourage her daughter to date a boy who is appropriate for her, and discourage her from dating a boy/man who may not have her best interest at heart?
In my household, my 15-year-old daughter is not allowed to date anyone more than one year older than she is. When she is in college, that may change, but right now, there is a big difference between the experience of a 16-year-old boy and an 18-year-old. Also, a mom can help by asking her daughter what characteristics in a boy are appealing to her and why, and then by explaining her concerns about anyone who may not have her best interests at heart. Ask about their reputation. What kinds of other girls has he dated? What does she think of their reputation?
Q: How do you talk about peer pressure with your daughter?
I tell my daughter never to do anything she doesn’t want to do. I explain that she should feel proud of her behavior and always put herself first. I also emphasize that anyone who threatens to not be her friend or not be her boyfriend based on something she will or will not do, is, by definition, not her friend or boyfriend and doesn’t deserve to be in her universe!
Q: What’s the best way for a parent to discuss sex and birth control with her daughter?
My advice is to try to ‘uncouple’ the social/sexual behavior part from the medical/physical part. This can help with anxiety, tension and emotions. It’s OK for parents to feel uncomfortable having these talks. They should feel free to ask for help (from therapists, counselors or doctors). I also think it’s important to be honest about our feelings as parents and if we have certain expectations for our daughters, we should be crystal clear about what these are. It’s not fair to expect our daughters to do something or not to do it if we haven’t explicitly told them what ‘it’ is! For example, we need to be clear and say, “I expect/hope you do not have sex before the age of X.”
Also, there are many myths and misconceptions out there about risks and benefits of the pill, the IUD and condoms. My award-winning book, The Body Scoop for Girls, has great facts for parents and teens on all aspects of adolescent health, including birth control. This can help start the dialogue between parents and teens and lay a foundation for further discussions with the teen’s doctor. Lastly, I always tell my teenage patients that if they want to engage in an adult behavior like sex, they need to act like an adult by taking responsibility for their health and the health of their partner!
Q: In addition to being a co-host of The Doctors, you see hundreds of teenage girls in your private practice. What questions do they often ask you because they’re too embarrassed to ask their parents?
A very common question I hear asked by my teenage patients is, “Sex doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Is this normal?” I explain that learning what feels good physically is a long process. I learned things at 40 that I didn’t know back then!!! Part of this process involves self-exploration (which we tend to not encourage in girls), and part of it occurs when being intimate with someone else. I tell them to be patient, and not feel stress or pressure to experience everything at once. That would make life boring!!! And I explain that sex should never hurt, and if it does, they can always ask me (or another doctor) about that.