When working with a premarital couple I utilize an assessment tool called PREARE-ENRICH. One question in the assessment is really important: “What was the attitude toward sex in your family? Was it talked about?” Inevitably almost every couple in some way or another says: my parents never had the “the talk” with me, or if they tried, they didn’t do a very good job. So, why do we keep pressuring parents to have “the talk”! Talk about a difficult thing to do in the midst of a difficult time of life! Why do we put so much pressure on parents to talk and discuss affection, intimacy and sex in the most perfect way possible, and to educate and inform their pimply hormonal teen about everything “birds and bees”? It is much more important to ask the question: "how did your family model affection to you?" When encouraged this way, these same couples always have amazing stories of how they experienced their family. Dad might not have been the most affectionate guy - but he always showed up when I need him. Mom may not have been very good at taking care of me when I was sick because of her own anxiety, but she was great at bringing snacks and cuddling on the couch during a movie. These little ways of sharing affection, consent, and intimacy with your teen speaks much louder then any one time birds and bees talk could.
Now, I want to back up real quick and clarify - talking is important. You should be checking in with your teen about what they know, and what they need to know, in an open, unassuming way. They are learning and being bombarded with tons of information from school, peers, online, and tv, and their caregivers should find a way to check in and fill in any gaps, or invite questions. You are competing with social media! You might be a little uncertain how to approach or discuss these big topics with them - but tik tok has no issue doing it. It is very important that you stay in the game here. It is even more important to monitor your own experience in real time. It is very easy to transport back to your experience when you were a pimply hormonal teen and project that onto your teen. Most likely this will come in the form of control or avoidance. For example, maybe the family is watching a show together and breasts are exposed and you panic and immediately turn off the tv (control). Maybe you see a spicy text message from another teen to your teen begging for nude pics, but decide not to say anything until they bring it up with you (avoidance). You might have really good reasons to justify these actions, however, any time you utilize control or avoidance and don’t follow up about it, it creates an unsafe space that shuts down any opportunity for trust, and takes you out of the game and remember - tik tok isn’t leaving… unless congress bans it.
So, how do caregivers stay in the game, without being shamed to have “the talk” and fall prey to constant moments of control and avoidance? Be open and engaged. Be invitational, not intrusive. This is the core of all healthy boundaries, and it is a really important way to model healthy consent, which your teen can then apply to whatever circumstance comes their way. Often times it is that experience of feeling insecure or invalidated by what you are witnessing your child go through, and your own awkwardness you inevitably felt when you were that age, that causes all of us to cope with control and avoidance. This inevitably leads us to intrusive boundaries. Instead of being a partner in their development, you become a source of anxiety to hide from or rebel against. It might be really tempting to say: “I can’t believe you would close the door with your boyfriend in your room (control).” Instead, try to say, “hey, I was a little surprised and didn’t expect you to have your boyfriend in your room with the door closed (openness), it’s important and would be helpful for me that we set some ground rules and I want to hear your input. Can we talk about it after dinner (engaged)?” Clear, open, and engaged invitational boundaries encourage influence. Influence lasts. Now you’re competing with Tik Tok for the long season, not simply losing to it in the short term game.
Now, lets back up one more time. I’m not trying to be another one of those voices that says, just talk to your kid like blah blah blah and you’ll be fine - if you don’t your screwed. This is hard! Stories of parents struggling to interact with their teenagers goes back all the way to ancient times! What was true then, is true today, and you are in a long line of heroic caregivers who have struggled and even sucked at this. But by trying to be open and engaged you are encouraging a space of trust, which models future intimacy. However, this is hard! You are up against whole fancy board rooms of corporate brands trying to influence your kids about what sex and intimacy should mean to them. It is important to not try and do this alone! Seek out caregivers trying their best to make sense of all this too so you can be sources of encouragement for one another. Be careful not to get stuck in justifying each others actions of control or avoidance. Remember, if your teen does premarital therapy some day they may have to answer the question “What was the attitude toward sex in your family? Was it talked about?” How do you hope they might respond?