How Parents Can Facilitate Sex-Ed for Teens with ADHD
“Having ‘the talk’ — ideally, ongoing talks — is critical to our differently-wired teens’ well-being. We want them to get the scoop about sex from us, not their peers or online. We want them to avoid risky behavior. We want them to understand the importance of consent, what it looks like, and how to read others’ cues.”
Why Sex-Ed Is Important
I hadn’t given sex-ed much thought until our family moved to the Netherlands, just after my son turned nine. It wasn’t long before we noticed a more open approach to sex and sexuality there. Sex-ed for Dutch children begins when they’re four, and continues throughout their formal education. By the time they’re teenagers, they’re ready for the top floor at NEMO, the sprawling science museum in Amsterdam, which has a “Teen Facts” display about sex and puberty that would make most American parents blush.
Many believe the Netherlands does it right. Research shows that honest and comprehensive sex-ed programs result in fewer teen pregnancies, lower rates of STDs and high-risk behavior, more acceptance of sexual identity and orientation, and overall healthier attitudes about sex. These are all critical considerations for middle-school students with ADHD, whose lagging maturity and shaky impulse control put them them at risk for harmful attitudes and behavior. In one Danish study, researchers found that teen pregnancy was significantly more prevalent among teens with ADHD. Researchers concluded, “Our findings indicate that increasing the level of sexual education in children and adolescents with ADHD is beneficial.”
But acknowledging the importance of sex-ed for teens with ADHD and knowing how to do it aren’t the same thing. Many parents’ reluctance to engage in conversations with teens about sex (they may think it’s too late or that it will be too awkward) leads them to skip the talks altogether.
If that’s you, please don’t opt out. Instead, go all in. Having “the talk” — ideally, ongoing talks — is critical to our differently-wired teens’ well-being. We want them to get the scoop about sex from us, not their peers or online. We want them to avoid risky behavior. We want them to understand the importance of consent, what it looks like, and how to read others’ cues. If our child is LGBTQ+, we want them to know that we accept, love, and support them exactly as they are. We want our teens to become adults who have a healthy relationship with their sexuality.
Sex-Ed Conversation Starters
Don’t worry if you haven’t had conversations yet — it’s never too late to begin. Here are some best practices to get you started.
Remember that sex-ed is about safety. Just as we teach our children how to cross the street and to buckle up for safety, sex-ed can keep our kids from harm. Having ADHD makes them more vulnerable. Make sure they have the knowledge they need to safely navigate situations (online and in person) that require recognizing the intentions of others and making smart, safe choices accordingly.
“The talk” should be an ongoing conversation. Sex-ed shouldn’t be a once-and-done kind of thing for any teen, nor especially for teens with ADHD. Look for opportunities in everyday life — something in the news, the plot line of a sitcom, a viral TikTok, a music video — to organically keep the dialogue going. A hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch might be the perfect opening for a (short and funny) learning moment.
Make sure your child has access to other trusted adults. While it’s critical that your teen knows she can come to you with anything, it’s also important that there are other adults she (and you) would feel comfortable talking with about sex — a therapist, mentor, or pediatrician.
Acknowledge any discomfort you feel. If talking about sex with your teen is uncomfortable, it’s OK to say so. Admitting it says to your teen that discomfort is normal and survivable. Says Amy Lang, a sex educator and founder of Birds + Bees + Kids, “It’s fine for your kids to be uncomfortable. Most of life is uncomfortable. And if they can’t be uncomfortable with you, their safest person, you’re setting them up for trouble. Everybody gets to practice being uncomfortable.”
Don’t omit talking about pornography. Parents avoid talking about porn because of embarrassment, and avoidance does our teens a huge disservice. Statistics show they will most likely be exposed to online porn (or seek it out) well before they leave high school. If you’re not sure about what to say, Lang suggests: “[Porn] is grown-up stuff. It’s not safe for kids, it can be very confusing, and it can really mess you up. It gives you ideas about sex and relationships that are completely wrong. The rule in our family is that we don’t look at porn. And if you do see it, let me know.”
Good sex-ed is more than a set of facts. While clear, honest, and shame-free information about health, safety, and consent is critical, so are conversations about your family’s values as they relate to sex.
Sex-Ed for Teens with ADHD: Next Steps
- Read: The Birds, the Bees & ADHD: Teaching Your Teen About Sex — Mindfully
- Understand: Study: Emotional Dysregulation Associated with Weak, Risky Romantic Relationships Among Teens with ADHD
- Read: Teen Girls with ADHD 2 to 3 Times More Likely to Become Pregnant, Study Finds
- Research: The Risk of Self-Harm Among Girls with ADHD
Deborah Reber is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a resource for parents raising differently-wired children. Her TiLT Parenting Podcast—on which she interviews thought leaders in parenting and education—has more than 2.5 million downloads. Before launching TiLT, Debbie spent 15 years writing inspiring books for teen girls. Her most recent book is Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope.
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