• Talking to your teenager about sex might seem daunting but it needn't be

  • Psychologist and writer Dr Terri Apter shares her expertise on the matter

  • We have therapists and counsellors who work with adolescents, find yours here

Mothers and teenage daughters have more quarrels than any other parent/child pair. Yet in spite of their arguments - which come on average at a rate of one every two and a half days - their interactions are normally rich with vitality and provide a valuable source of understanding both for the daughter who is using her mother as a sounding board for her developing identity, and for the mother who is trying to keep up to date with the mysterious teen who has usurped the little girl she once understood so well.

One inescapable and contentious issue is sex - sexuality, sexual activity, and the meaning of sex. In the midst of their intense life with a teenage daughter, mothers seek frank and open discussions about the sexuality they sometimes fear and which a daughter feels powerfully but may not understand. In the past, many worried that conversations about sex would trigger lustful thoughts and lead to licentious behaviour; now “the sex conversation” is seen as crucial to sensible behaviour and credited with recent reduction in rates of teen pregnancy which are their lowest since 1969.

Though risks of pregnancy or disease remain a real concern, today’s mothers worry equally about the impact of sexual activity on a daughter’s self-esteem, her vulnerability to shame and coercion. Recent survey data justifies this fear. In November of last year, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (http://www.natsal.ac.uk/) showed that one in ten women said they had sometime in their lives felt coerced into having sex, and such coercion was likely to have been experienced in their teenage years.

One out of every ten teens presents a concerned mother with poor odds. However, she may have real difficulty with her efforts to build a protective scaffold. Though the oppressive ignorance portrayed in Masters of Sex is of an era long past, teens often bristle with irritation and embarrassment when a mother broaches the subject of sex: in their view “mothers and sex don’t mix,” and the conversation may be blocked with the protest: "I know that already!”

Teenagers do know a lot about sex, but the subconscious depths of sexual desire make real understanding hard to come by, even in what is called a sex saturated society. Prominent social messages are packed with contradictions: sex is no big thing, but it exposes you to terrible risks; you should embrace your power, yet are in constant threat from sexual predators; you should be desirable to others, but you should not act on your own desires. These embedded confusions may increase teenage girls’ vulnerability to coercion, which includes intimidation via fear of rejection, reluctance to disappoint someone, or a need to please someone, especially when they feel lonely or depressed, or worry that they have little to offer a partner other than sexual pleasure.

The enormously protective impact of mother/daughter conversations has been shown in a large body of research. Sharon Thompson spotted a startling correlation between the quality of mother/daughter sex conversations and the daughter’s use of contraception when she first had intercourse. Knowing the basics of human reproduction was less important than the ability to engage with and reflect on questions about her own desire and the meaning sex had for her, and for many girls this higher order understanding grew through conversations with her mother. When mothers discussed the positive and pleasurable aspects of sex, their daughters were more likely to plan ahead and use contraception – but, additionally, such deeper mother/daughter conversations reduced the risk of feeling duped or coerced into having sex. In the absence of such conversations, teenage girls were more likely to describe their first experience as something “just happened” without them seeing what was going to happen, or wanting it.

Talking to your daughter about sex will not put a stop to sexual activity, but may reduce key risks associated with teen sex. In encouraging her to take an active part in what sexual relationships she desires, mothers can help a daughter take control, even in the heat of passion.

Take sex talk beyond biology

The facts of human reproduction are important, but good conversations need to include the deeply personal context in which sex occurs.

  • Relationships

By talking about the importance of relationships in sex, you can strengthen her resistance to other reasons for having sex (such as curiosity and peer pressure).

  • Respect

Emphasising respect for herself and others supports her efforts to reflect on the meaning and consequences (emotional and physical) of sexual activity.

  • Desire and pleasure

You may be surprised by this, but encouraging your daughter to reflect on the importance of her own desire actually decreases her risk of unwanted pregnancy. Girls who have a mother’s encouragement to value the pleasure of sex are likely to be more prepared for and in control of their sexual experiences. Positive messages about sex seem to be more effective in supporting a teens control over sexual activity than “just say no” messages.

  • Encourage her to unravel social messages in films, in adverts, in soaps, where sex may be seen as ordinary while it exposes one to the dangers of pregnancy or disease, where girls may be encouraged to feel powerful, but are also warned that they can be easily overpowered, and are targets of rapists, or where girls are valued for being desirable but “good” girls never give in to desire.

Dr Terri Apter is a psychologist and author of You Don't Really Know Me:

Further reading

Why empathy is important in parenting

Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

4 ways to encourage healthy body image in your daughter

Can you be too close to your daughter?