Written by RSEI Educator | Published August 2nd, 2019

We’re deep into summer and it’s the season for tough questions. We hosted a webinar last week on Answering Tough Questions. In this webinar, two of our amazing educators outline the Responsible Sex Education Institute best practices when it comes to answering young folks’ questions and gave participants an opportunity to practice. [If you missed it, you can check out the recording here!] If you live or work with young people you know that their questions can definitely throw us if we’re not prepared. Below are our recommended steps.

Pause before you respond
It can feel urgent to respond to a question as soon as it’s asked. Take a breath and 10 seconds to think about how you want to respond. This can also give you an opportunity to make sure you understand what is being asked. Sometimes we make answers more complicated than they need to be. Consider restating the question back, before deciding how to answer it.

It’s OK to pause for longer, or let the youth know that you will come back to the question the next time you’re together. Using a question box or an ask it basket allows you time to think about how you want to answer a question in advance. You can always text us for help by first sending SEXED to 57890. That will opt you in and then you can text questions any time you have them!

Validate the question
Even though we may feel shocked or nervous to answer a particular question, remember how the young person asking might be feeling, too. Make sure they know you appreciate their question by saying something like, that’s a smart question, thank you for asking that, I get that question a lot, or I’m glad you asked that.

Determine what type of question is being asked
There are many different types of questions we get in a sex ed classroom, and trusted adults at home get even more! Questions might be information seeking or fact questions, like what is ovulation? These are the least complicated to answer, because there is typically just one correct answer. Value questions are trickier. It is not the job of the youth serving adult to give their values when discussing a values-based questions, but for other trusted adults like parents/guardians or faith based leaders it may be appropriate to share their personal values. Is masturbation wrong? is an example of a value question. While youth serving adults should not share their own opinion or values, we can identify it as a values question and then give information instead, like:

i.e. Whether masturbation is wrong or right is a values question. It can help to talk to a trusted adult to figure out how you feel about it. I can tell you that masturbation is healthy for the body and doesn’t cause hair to grow on the palms or someone to go blind (two common myths about masturbation). 

RSEI educators do not answer personal questions like when was the first time you had sex? Every organization has different rules about how to answer personal questions, but we always recommend showing youth what healthy boundaries look like between adults and students. Also, often personal questions are actually permission seeking or am I normal questions. Young people probably don’t actually care or want to know about our sexual history, but instead often want to know when it’s right for them to have sex or what birth control should they use. Identifying these questions is important, so you’re able to tell young people that everyone is different. For example, someone might answer the above personal question by saying:

I’m not going to answer personal questions. I can tell you that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” age to start having sex. It is a personal decision. It can help to talk to a trusted adult, doctor and their romantic partner if someone is thinking about having sex

Finally, the shock question. We may want to end the conversation once a young person asks a question just to shock us. Maybe they used inappropriate language, or asked a very personal question, or asked a question that seemed like it was just to disrupt the class. Remember to take a breath, then respond. No matter what question was asked, we want the door to stay open so students feel safe asking questions in the future. Their first question might be to shock us, but once we’ve built the trust by responding, their next question could be information seeking!

Respond to every question
There are some questions it might not be appropriate to answer as asked, like personal questions. Even so, it’s important to respond. If a question uses inappropriate language or slang, model appropriate language when you answer the question. Define any slang used, in case students aren’t familiar with the medical language. If there is a question about a topic you’ve already covered, tossing the question back to the class can be a great way to do a knowledge check. This works at home too, if a child asks a value question, go ahead and ask them how they feel about it, too. 

Admit if you don’t know the answer to a question whether your in the classroom or with your family at home. First, young people will find out if you made it up or lied. Second, it builds trust to show young people you don’t know everything either. It can boost their confidence too, because they’re asking such smart questions! Look up the answer together on a trusted website like pprm.org or text our teen line, In Case You’re Curious (ICYC), together by sending the appropriate keyword to 57890.

State the facts, keep it short
Avoid verbal quicksand or the snowball effect! Keeping your answers shorts helps prevent long and confusing tangents. After you’ve answered it’s a good idea to check to see if students understand, then ask what other questions they have. i.e. Did that answer your question? What other questions do you have? Using this strategy allows young folks guide the conversation. 

Connect them to resources
Resources can include: local health centers, especially ones that cater to teenagers; gender sexuality alliance (GSA); ICYC textline; informational websites; local or national crisis lines; your local Department of Health; and places where they can get free condoms, lube, and dental dams.

Using the above steps helps us prepare for tough questions, but it is just as important to practice. Check out our ICYC instagram account to find common questions and see how we answer them. Use the account to draft your own answer and see how it compares to ours. You can also enlist a buddy to help you practice; another teacher, social worker, colleague, co-parent, adult family member, or even an online community group. How would you answer the question below?

icyc questions
To find out how we would answer, pre-order our new book, In Case You’re Curious: Questions about Sex from Young People with Answers from the Experts

Sex education: Meeting today’s Challenge, 2008. Linda Phillips Lehrer.
General Guidelines for Answering Questions. RSEI. nd.