Mom talking to a teen daughter
Photo: Vincent Laforet
Terri Apter, PhD, a University of Cambridge researcher and leading authority on mothers and teen girls, offers a four-point plan to improve your next conversation. (To find out if you and your daughter are effectively communicating about sex, take The Sex Talk Test she designed for
1. Make sure you go beyond biology.

Straight talk about the physical and biological facts of sex is important, but good conversations include the deeply personal context in which sex occurs. A mother can offer a far broader conversation than those normally included in school or other formal venues. Try talking about:

Relationships: By talking about the importance of sex in a relationship, you can strengthen her resistance to other reasons for having sex (such as curiosity and peer pressure).

Respect: Emphasizing respect for herself and others supports her efforts to reflect on the meaning and consequences (emotional and physical) of sexual activity.

Desire and pleasure: You may be surprised by this, but encouraging your daughter to reflect on the importance of her own desire actually decreases her risk of unwanted pregnancy. Girls who have a mother's encouragement to value the pleasure of sex are likely to be more prepared for and in control of their sexual experiences. Positive messages about sex seem to be more effective in supporting a teen's control over sexual activity than do the "just say no" messages.

2. Assure your daughter that some confusion is normal.

The subconscious depths of sexual desire and its emotional resonance make understanding hard to come by. So:

  • Remind your daughter that gauging her own needs and wishes takes time.

  • Work with her to unravel mixed social messages. Talk about ads and soaps and magazine articles to raise awareness about implicit messages. For example, many prominent social messages are packed with contradiction:

    • Sex is an accepted part of life, but it exposes one to the unimaginable complications of pregnancy and the dangers of disease. Girls are encouraged to feel powerful but are also warned that they can be easily overpowered and are targets of rapists.

    • They are expected to be sexual and look "ravishing," yet they are advised to say no to sex.

    • They watch sexual ecstasies on camera but are assured it is "no big thing."

3. Show that you are interested in what she has to say about sex.

  • Allow pauses in your own speech; these will invite her to respond.

  • When she does speak, take time to think about what she has said and ask for clarification.

  • Avoid jumping to conclusions about what she thinks and feels.

  • Avoid telling her what she should think or feel.

4. Improve opportunities for genuine conversations.

  • Find time to spend doing stuff that she enjoys.

    • Talking is often opportunistic. You cannot jump-start a conversation. The best information is often given informally, with sensitivity to context. It has to develop. Some daughters enjoy cooking with their mothers, and this allows talk time. Some teens enjoy shopping with their mothers, and this allows talk time. Sometimes snack time is special; but whether you choose a special meal in a restaurant or a joint session over laundry, you can be led by what makes your daughter feel comfortable. You can keep tabs on this. Listening to a daughter covers a broad range of behavior.

  • Use her own interests to emphasize the expectation that she should have a say in what happens in relationships.

    • Key in to her favorite programs. Use media as starting point for thinking about power, agency and respect. (Ask, "What do you think is happening between those two characters?" and "What do you admire about her?")

  • Learn to be comfortable with you and your daughter having different opinions. You can still listen and have a good conversation even when you do not agree with her. It can give your daughter an enormous boost to see that you are listening to her, considering her point of view and perhaps revising your own perspective in response to what she says.


Next Story