Those pesky personal questions

There is an article in yesterday’s NYTimes called Q. Did you ever smoke pot? A. It’s Complicated, that is far better than I feared.  It’s about whether or not to tell a preteen or teenager about one’s own drug use – either as a doctor or as a parent.  Many of the same issues and questions are involved when youth ask questions or toss insults in moments of anger about adults’ prior sex life.  Or maybe your pre-child sex life (or your current one!) was particularly different than the way your teenager perceives your current sexuality in some way, for example if you dated a different gender than your current partner or you were involved in sex work.

The Times article has a few really good points:

  1. We know the brain is not fully developed at 16 or 18 like we used to think, and it is the long-range planning parts that take a bit more time.  While sexuality does not have the same negative repercussions on brain development that are inherent to drug and heavy alcohol use.  Regardless, this does speak to an increased need for youth to spend extra time thinking over big decisions rather than jumping in with two feet.
  2. The article goes on to say that “the research on this point is limited. But there is evidence to suggest that when parents provide more information and better modeling early on, their children’s risk of substance abuse goes down. And a 2009 study by the Hazelden addiction treatment center in Minnesota found evidence that many teenagers believed that parental honesty about alcohol use was a positive influence.
  3. Dr. Janet F. Williams, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on substance abuse says, pointedly, “What you think they want to know may not be at all why they’re asking.”  The article doesn’t elaborate on this point, but it is a critical one.  Your teenager may be trying to bring up something that he or she has questions about, rather than trying to find out your personal history, but isn’t sure how to do it smoothly.  A simple response like, “That’s a pretty personal question!  Why do you ask?”
  4. However, if you suspect your teenager is trying to deflect attention away from something he or she did, the Times quotes Deborah R. Simkin, a psychiatrist who is a liaison to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  Dr. Simkin “drew an analogy to an alcoholic who resists treatment by trying to bring up other people’s issues.  ‘The kid’s trying to divert the attention from an appropriate intervention by a parent,’ she said. In such cases, the parent’s response should be clear: ‘We’re not going to discuss what I did, we’re going to discuss what you did.'”

Ultimately, you don’t have to tell your teenager anything about your personal sexual history.  There is some evidence to suggest it might be helpful, but it’s not very conclusive, and research is notably not about you, your teenager, and your situation.  So it might not be helpful.

But regardless of your choice about whether and how much to share, always be honest.  Rather than making up a personal history, decline to answer personal questions, offer examples of friends, or quote or look up statistics.  For example, rather than answering a question about how old were you the first time you had sex, look up historical statistics of age of first intercourse with your teenager and talk about the differences (or more likely, the lack thereof!) that exist over time or the dramatic differences that do exist between cultures.

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. Where would one find the statistics on age of first intercourse??? That is exactly the question my pre-teen asked me.

  2. Great question Ruth, sorry I didn’t include that information yesterday!

    Here are some interesting current statistics from the Kinsey Institute:

    Here’s some great CDC data on adolescent sexuality statistics, but the data only goes back to 1991:

    And, of course, the Guttmacher Institute has a huge store of data and statistics:

    The Guttmacher Data Center is a particularly easy way to get some information:

    Now, all of this great data aside, I am looking for one specific place to send you for the historical data – so stay tuned!

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