Staying interested

The other day the illustrious Paul Sunstone left the following comment on this post:

One of the challenges that I’ve found when talking with teens is boredom on my part. At first, that might sound counter-intuitive, Karen. After all, our sexuality is so important to us that it might be hard to imagine someone could become bored with a discussion of it. But I’ve noticed time and again that when some teen starts talking about sex and relationships (as in “What do boys want?”, etc.) I’ve found it difficult to get enthusiastic about discussing the subject. I very much suspect that’s because of two things: First, I’ve been over the same subject so many times that I’ve lost my enthusiasm for it; and second, I’m not an expert on the subject so it kind of puts me on the defensive to be asked about it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt frustrated that I didn’t have a concise, insightful answer to some question I’ve been asked. Despite all that, I feel something of an obligation to the teens who ask me these questions. When they trust me enough to discuss their sexuality with me, I know I would feel bad putting them off. So, what to do?

You spend all day talking with teens about their sexuality. How do you stay enthusiastic? Do you ever worry you’re sending the message that you’d rather be elsewhere? And should I be concerned about sending that message anyway?

It’s an interesting, multifaceted dilemma and question.

Figuring out how to stay enthusiastic has not yet presented itself as a problem for me, Paul.  I am just naturally inclined to be interested.  In addition to my work with teenagers, I do a lot of work with parents.  So in addition to thinking about the teenagers and their sexuality education and development, I also think about parents and how parents can best interface with teenagers, and from there about the extended family dynamics.  It may be that because my wider view on adolescent sexuality, my engagement level stays higher.

I also just delight in adolescent enthusiasm and passion.  So in addition to the subject matter, which I find inherently interesting and fun to talk about, teenagers themselves tend to engage me.  They’re cognitively advanced enough to hold a truly nuanced conversation, idealistic enough to hold a value to it’s highest potential, and generally very deeply immersed in whatever it is they’re talking about.

So I have never had cause to worry that I am sending the message that I’d rather be elsewhere.  (Okay, that’s not completely true.  Yesterday a dear friend was in a bad car accident just before my college class, and my attention was notably lacking.  But I explained the situation to my students, and they were very sweet about it.)

Should you be concerned?  Well, probably.  Appearing disinterested (that you’d rather be somewhere else) can be a huge blow to a teenager who is opening up deeply – perhaps for the first time to an adult – about her or his sexuality.  One of your responsibilities as an adult who teenagers open up to is making sure that the teenager wants to come back and talk more, and continue to access adult perspective, experience, and knowledge.  By not being attentive about these theoretical issues, you might be inadvertently making the teenager think that you’re not available for concrete advice.

Sometimes, though, there are extenuating circumstances that take our attention away from the young people who come to us for conversation (as with me yesterday), and explaining our lack of attention and focus is fine.  Actually, it’s great!  Teenagers can learn much about balance by experiencing adults who are open and upfront with their movement towards balance, even on the days that balance means the teenager is the one who gets the short end of the stick.

Every teenager needs an adult to talk with about these issues.  I’m so glad to know you’re out there, Paul and the many others who read this blog, talking with teenagers and supporting them in their sexuality education and sexual development.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I agree that teenagers need trusted adults to talk with and that the trusted adults need to be interested. I’d like to comment on two pieces of being a disinterested adult.

    One piece is that after years of being interested in something, sometimes the interest gets used up and can’t be revitalized in the same subject, sometimes a person has to move on to a different topic. Sometimes, when boredom is setting in, it is more about the individual feeling pulled to a different topic or type of conversation. So, Paul may be ready to move on.

    Or, the second piece is that I’ve found myself to be disinterested in a conversation and, after much attention to myself and the conversation and the other person in the conversation, I’ve realized that sometimes what I am feeling is the inability of the other person to talk about what is really on their mind – they want to have a conversation with me and they feel unable to have the particular conversation they are interested in, so they are having some other conversation, hoping it will satisfy their desire without requiring the depth of their true desire (which is often scary to them). That tends to result in a boring conversation, even though, especially with teens, it might sound like an important conversation about sex.

    Teens often want to talk about values and morals in their lives and in the lives of the adults they value, but it is easier to talk about ‘sex’ and ask questions about such a topic, than to expose their desire for a real, honest conversation about spirituality and how it can affect them on a day to day basis.

    I’d encourage Paul, and you, Dr Rayne, if this ever occurs to you, to listen harder when you notice yourself feeling bored, and see if there is another conversation trying to be spoken. And then have the courage to bring the true conversation to light. It’s hard work, but very satisfying.

    Good luck to both of you – you do great work!

  2. What do teenage boys want? That’s an easy one: pizza.

    If there’s one thing I remember from being a teenage boy it’s the constant hunger. I probably ate 5000 calories/day and still couldn’t get my weight above about 120.

  3. These are great comments, Dorian! Thanks for your input.

  4. Wow! I thought I already responded to this. I must be getting old enough to be loosing my memory. Yikes!

    I just wanted to thank you, Karen, for such good advice. You’ve answered my questions and have helped considerably. Last week, after reading this, I took away renewed feelings of hope for making a difference.

    Also, I found Dorian’s advice helpful too. Thank you, Dorian!

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