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How do I start the conversation about sex with my teen granddaughter?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My granddaughter was caught taking to a boy about sex positions. She has been removed from her parent's home for a year and is with her uncle and aunt. What is the best way to discuss why she knows about positions? How do I make sure she understands she is too young to be sexually active?

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Grandmother,

You're asking some good questions, and it certainly can be difficult to know how to explain sexuality and sexual acts to a teenager, or even how to broach this sensitive topic in both a compassionate and age-appropriate way. I’m so glad you’ve reached out to us for more information and guidance.

It’s completely normal and natural for a teenager to be curious about her own body, peer’s bodies, and if she were an older teen, to even want to know more about specific sexual activities. It’s important that your granddaughter is able to have access to the age-appropriate information about sexuality while also understanding your family’s clear expectations about appropriate behavior.

Safety Planning
The important caregivers in your granddaughter’s life need to educate her about both risks and about how to stay safe. This is what we call Safety Planning, and these conversations help her grow up with the information she needs to make good decisions. It's important that she knows that while she’s still under the care of her aunt and uncle it’s not okay for her to text (or send in any way) messages or photos with sexual content to anyone (or for anyone to be sending her these things either). Although this might feel exciting and fun, this type of behavior is not safe and can have real-life consequences. This is not to shame her for having normal feelings, but it’s important that a balance is struck around having access to important information she’s wondering about, while at the same time clearly laying out expectations around boundaries, technology use, and safe behavior. 

It may be particularly helpful to talk about safety planning online, and the risks with sharing information, including pictures with anyone - even people we trust. We cannot control what gets saved on a phone call, in a text message or chat room or in any folder. Conversations and pictures can sometimes be shared, even by accident and then control over them is lost. Safety planning includes helping her recognize that this isn't as much about controlling her but to help  her be responsible and use good judgement.

To start the conversation, I would ask her where she got this information from – how does she know about these specific sexual positions? Ask open-ended questions that don’t suggest one particular answer. Be curious and open to what she says, encouraging conversation. 

Keeping Conversations Going
These talks should include talking about consent too. Make sure she knows that when she’s ready to be sexually active, she and her partner should actively communicate. A partner should honor her wishes and vice versa. If at any point one person does not want to continue to engage in a sexual act – whatever that act may be and no matter what any partner has said before (be that 4 minutes ago or two seconds ago) – then the sexual act should stop. Both parties should always be actively consenting, and sometimes that does mean being comfortable with something at some point, and then saying no down the road.

It can be helpful to acknowledge that this type of talk is uncomfortable, but to also stress its importance. Even if it doesn’t seem like she’s listening, she is. You can start by asking if now is an okay time to talk, and lay out rules for her about technology use, appropriate behavior, safety, and relationships, (and I would encourage you and her aunt and uncle to meet and chat beforehand so you can be clear about what you want to say). I would keep the talk private – somewhere free from other people’s ears, and with just her and one caregiver to make it easiest on your granddaughter.

It's great that you, and her aunt and uncle are being proactive – that’s fantastic and I encourage you all to keep it up. Now may also be a good time to check any devices she uses (gaming systems, computers, tablets, phones) to make sure they’re protected too. Her aunt and uncle may want to check out Qustodio, a parental control app, which is free for one device.

Besides keeping the conversation going (or stopping so she can have a break, and following up later), offer her information she can explore on her own. Make sure that even if she isn’t comfortable coming to you or her aunt or uncle with a question about sex, health, or consent, she has another safe place to find the answer. We want caregivers – not pornography – to be the primary sex educators of children.

Recognizing Warning Signs
Please note also whether you or anyone else close to your family have noticed any changes in her behavior or mood? Review and share these Warning Signs in Children and Teens of Possible Sexual Abuse and see if you see any of these in her. Keep in mind that these same or similar behaviors may pop up in other times of stress (like as you mention, being separated from her parents for a year). So if you do notice anything out of the ordinary in her, especially since she’s had a big change in her life, it may be helpful to get a counselor involved. Her pediatrician, health insurance company, or our Finding and Choosing Professional Treatment and Supports resource guide may all be good ways to find a referral.

I’ve included some additional resources below that you may want to review first, and then pass along for your granddaughter to explore on her own:

  • Info for Teens (Planned Parenthood): Information for teenagers about their changing bodies, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, and consent
  • Sexual Health (Teens Health): Information for adolescents on their own and their peers’ bodies, puberty, and sexual health 
  • Sex, Etc.: An organization by teens for teens that has articles and videos on identity, masturbation, sex, and what’s normal and healthy for your body

Here are also some resources specifically for caregivers that you and your granddaughter’s aunt and uncle may want to check out:

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: January 10th, 2018