Let’s Talk Month – Navigating Parent/Child Communications During the Teen Years

Jean Workman
Health Educator

Letting go of parental oversight is a difficult step in the adolescent journey – particularly when many teens leave home for college for the first time. As prepared as we think we are to let them navigate this chapter of life, parents often cling to much-needed hopes. Hope that their teens have listened and will remember all the conversations about relationships, sexual and reproductive health, and substance use. Hope that their teens will make good choices on their own. Hope that this next chapter in life brings success and extraordinary experiences.

As the mother of a college freshman, I too have been clinging to hope. Since my son was a toddler, our family has had open conversations about many issues, as no topic has ever been taboo. It was our goal to ensure that my son and his sister always felt that they could come to their father and me with any question, and we would provide an age-appropriate answer. Creating an open-door environment served us well as they entered the pubescent years. 

I admit my comfort level for talking about sexual and reproductive health is much stronger than most because of working as a health educator with a focus on adolescent development. Regardless, comfort levels greatly improve with purposeful conversations had throughout adolescence. 

Each year, our nation celebrates October as “Let’s Talk Month” encouraging young people and parents to communicate with one another about sexual and reproductive health topics — including relationships, bodies and body image, reproduction, gender and sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and preventing pregnancy and STDs. While never a one and done conversation, the celebration of “Let’s Talk Month” serves as a catalyst to spark ongoing conversations. Getting the conversation started may feel awkward if it has not been a part of your family culture. Here are a few tips to begin tough conversations:

Ask for Permission to Discuss Important Topics.

As odd as it may seem, asking for permission provides young people (and parents) with a sense of control, especially if your young person has not initiated the conversation. A normal part of adolescent development is their struggle for control. When teens (and even adults) are given the opportunity to say “yes” before a conversation begins, you are providing more control which leads to them paying more attention to what you are saying. It prepares both the parent and teen for a serious discussion. Prepare the conversation by stating, “Can we make time to talk tonight after dinner about something important?” or “After dinner, can we go on a walk to talk?” 

Be Purposeful with Location when Having a Tough Conversation.

Tough conversations are difficult to have when you are making eye-to-eye contact. Taking a walk with your tween/teen or discussing important topics while you are driving in the car provide opportunities for a discussion without needing direct eye contact. It also situates both the parent and child on an equal level for a richer discussion. Ensuring that the space provides confidentiality, so that other siblings or the public cannot hear the conversation, is also important. 

Be Comfortable with Silence.

Starting a conversation with “what do you think about” is a door-opener question that allows young people to explore their own thoughts and provide an open-ended answer. It’s important to allow young people time to develop their answers. Being comfortable with silence is necessary. 

Using a journal for communicating with your young person can also be ideal. You pose a question in the journal and ask that they respond. In return you receive their answer while they pose a question to you. The conversation can go back and forth providing reflective time to develop your answers. Remember to set your own boundaries as a parent of personal information you are willing to share with them regarding your own behavior as a teenager. 

Affirm Their Strengths.

During their adolescent journeys, young people are developing emotionally, physically, and socially. This period can be an extremely awkward journey for you both. The temper tantrums of the toddler years sometimes rear their ugly head once again as a young person transitions into puberty. The influx of hormones in their bodies sends them on emotional rollercoaster rides that parents often struggle to understand. The emotional turmoil experienced by young people sometimes leaves them feeling self-conscious about fitting in with their peers. This can lead to risky decision making from negative peer pressure.  Affirming strengths is important to remind young people of their capabilities for healthy decision making. It encourages them, affirms your relationship, and builds self-esteem and self-worth. Affirmations should be authentic to your child’s abilities and aspirations.

Have Conversations Early and Often.

It is never too early to begin conversations about relationships, bodies and body image, reproduction, gender and sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and preventing pregnancy and STDs. Age appropriate conversations can start during the early elementary years. The more often a family has conversations, the more approachable parents become when young people need to ask questions. When parents use door-closers, such as “you are too young for that” or “where did you hear that,” they shut down the conversation and increase the possibility their child will learn never to come back when seeking answers to tougher topics like sexual health, relationships, or substance use. Rather than door closers, use door openers, such as “that’s a very good question, what do you think about that?” or “I am so grateful you came to me with that question, let’s talk about it.” Statements like these open the door for rich conversations that can continue over time. 

Create Your Own Lifeline.

Reaching out to a friend, family member, online resources, and organizations like the Poe Center for Health Education are highly encouraged when you feel you need extra support for age-appropriate answers to questions your child may ask. It’s absolutely OK to say “can I get back to you on that” to provide you a moment to take a deep breath and seek information to help prepare a thoughtful answer. The Poe Center has a multitude of programs on health topics, such as substance use prevention, bullying prevention, and family life that can support families in becoming competent, confident, and connected to have rich conversations during the adolescent years. 

One of the mantras in our household was there is never anything too big that we cannot handle as a family with the hopes that it always encouraged our children to be open to communicating about any struggles they or their friends were experiencing. As parents, we want our children to know we always have their backs and will always be their strongest advocate. Positive communication about developing bodies, questions about sexual and reproductive health, healthy friendships and romantic relationships, and healthy decision making served us well. 

On our drive to UNC-Charlotte for freshman move-in day, I asked my son what he liked most about our conversations during his adolescent journey. He said the one thing he most appreciated was that he never felt like he couldn’t ask a question. He appreciated the open environment that his father and I created where no topic was taboo. Like all parents, as our children develop their college independence, I hope he leans into all those past conversations to make good decisions while navigating this new chapter in his life.  


  1. Let’s Talk Month Planning Guidebook
  2. Salerno, J. (2016). 11. Teen speak: A how-to guide for real talks with teens about sex, drugs, and other risky behaviors.

Featured Poe Program: Girl Talk / Guy Talk – For Parent/Guardian and Child

Participants: Parent/Guardian and Child
Program Lengths: 90 minutes

Girl Talk addresses the timely topic of adolescent growth and development and the physical, social, and emotional changes that girls experience during puberty. 3-D exhibits, hands-on activities, and candid discussions help moms and daughters explore a range of topics from the workings of the reproductive system to the menstrual cycle to feminine hygiene protection and more. Best for girls in 4th – 7th grades.

Guy Talk equips boys with accurate age-appropriate information developed to help with healthy growth and development. Workshop topics include the changes which happen during puberty, the reproductive system, proper nutrition, and hygiene. Poe Center educators will lead parents and sons through engaging and interactive activities. Best for boys in 5th – 8th grades.

Upcoming Girl Talk Online Session: October 23, 9:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Upcoming Girl Talk In Person Session: October 23, 9:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. at the Poe Center

Programs may be presented online and are great for participating from home. Call (919) 231-4006 or email Robin Pittman at [email protected] for details.

 Featured Resource: SexEd, Honestly: A comprehensive sex resource for teens and parents

With nearly 200,000 unique visitors per month, Sexetc.org, is one of the most popular and comprehensive sex ed resource by teens, for teens in the U.S.

Sexetc.org was originally launched in 1999 and has won numerous awards since. The site was relaunched in 2012 and is accessible on all desktop, tablet and mobile devices. Sexetc.org continues to provide accurate and relevant stories and blog posts written by the Sex, Etc. teen editorial staff. The site also includes the following features:

  • Communication Tool: a step-by-step guide to starting tough conversations
  • Info Center: read stories by teens and FAQs on sexual health topics
  • “Sex in the States:” A guide to teen rights in each state