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Answering questions is a fundamental part of caring for young people. Some questions are easy to answer, but others may be tricky or feel awkward to address. You are not alone.

Building on the success of our new virtual education series, Real Talk: Creating Healthy Conversations with Young People, we are launching a feature here called “Ask the Experts.” Every month, we’ll bring you a frequently asked question about health and sexuality and one of PPIL’s educators will answer it.

Looking back at our second Real Talk discussion about Navigating Tricky Topics and Answering Tough Questions, this question set the tone for the evening:

“What can I do if I get asked a question I'm not prepared for or am asked when I can’t answer?”

Cary Archer, Manager of Education of Outreach is here to help:

Young people don’t always wait for the perfect setting to ask a question. Checking out at the grocery store or driving in the car together while running late to a family party is not most people’s favorite time to hear “What’s masturbation?” from the young person in their life. But it happens. And, frankly, even when the setting is good, young people may ask a question that their adult doesn’t feel equipped to answer, or may need a moment to process their thoughts.

Regardless of when or where or how the question is asked, adults may be taken by surprise and feel flustered. Here are some tips to help you respond in the moment and keep those lines of communication open:

  1. Validate.
    Let the young person know that you are happy they asked the question and you appreciate that they feel comfortable talking to you about the topic. This is important whether you can answer the question right then and there or need to return to it later.

  2. Buy time if necessary.
    If now is not the right time or place to have a frank conversation about sexuality, it’s okay to let the young person know that you will talk about it later. Standing on a crowded sidewalk waiting for the bus may not be the best time to answer “Why do people use condoms?” And that’s ok. Let the young person know that you can talk about it when you get home—but make sure you do follow up. Otherwise, you risk making them feel like you don’t want to answer their questions, and they may stop asking.

  3. Clarify and confirm.
    When a young person asks a question, it’s important to understand exactly what they’re asking about. Responding with an open-ended question like “What have you heard about that topic?” can help you get needed clarification. You may also want to clarify the words the young person used. For example, asking “Is masturbation bad?” is vague. They may be asking “Is it morally wrong?” or they may be asking “Is it unhealthy?” It’s important to understand what they want to know, so you can answer it honestly and directly.

  4. Answer with what information you know.
    You don’t need to be an expert in every topic to have meaningful conversations with young people. Being supportive and open to talking about sensitive topics is more important than having all the answers. When responding to a question, it’s ok to admit you don’t know. This kind of honesty will help build trust and credibility with the young person, which is important in encouraging future questions and continued conversation. Remember tip number 2, though: don’t forget to follow up, as promised.

  5. Find the answers together.
    If a young person asks you about a topic you don’t know much about, you may want to look it up together. This gives you the opportunity to teach them how to find trusted sources and reliable information. Once you have found good sources together, the young person can return to that source later if they want to learn more on their own.

  6. Share your values.
    When answering questions, you’ll want to provide factual information whenever possible, but remember that it’s also important to share your values. Young people are working on shaping their own values and they often rely on the values of trusted adults as their guide.

  7. Ask follow up questions.
    Use the discussion to ask the young person if they have any other questions. They probably do, but may have been too embarrassed to ask before. Having an affirming conversation about one sensitive topic can help make them feel open to asking you about other aspects of sexuality.

To get even more tips and tricks on how to handle surprise questions, watch the recording of our first session. 

If you haven’t joined us for Real Talk yet, it’s not too late!

Registration is now open for the last three sessions, which take place every Tuesday via Zoom. You can attend all of the sessions or choose the ones that interest you most. RSVP now using the links below:

We hope you’ll consider joining us to learn new tools to help you create healthy conversations with the young people in your life.

Tags: parenting, remote-learning, sexed