DearPeggy.com


For Parents Only
Providing Sex Education for your Children
Are you prepared to accept this responsibility?

By Peggy Vaughan and James Vaughan, Ph.D.

"Eighty percent of parents agree that it is their responsibility to provide
sexuality education to their children, YET FEW ACTUALLY DO SO."

The above statement is the conclusion of a coalition of organizations attending a one-day colloquium on this issue, including the American Medical Association, the American School Health Association, the Association of Junior Leagues, the Girls Clubs of America, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and New York University.

This is a significant and pervasive need not currently being met by parents. Even if parents DO attempt to provide sex education for their children, they often focus only on sexual facts—as if a lack of correct information is the only requirement in being able to talk to their kids about sex. While this is part of the problem, it is a minor part. Even when parents have good factual information, they often fail to communicate it effectively—if at all.

Many of us can identify with the comments made by Jane Pauley when she was hosting a PBS production entitled "Sex, Teens and Public Schools" in October of 1995. "...I must have been in my 20s...possibly still in college and having a discussion at home with my sister and my mother, and my mother arguing that sex education belonged in the home, and my sister and I looking at each other and howling with laughter because it had never come up in our home."

Since most of us were raised by parents who couldn't talk about sex, it's understandable that when we become parents we don't feel comfortable talking to our own kids. But unless we want to perpetuate the problems related to this issue, we need to step up to our responsibility to provide sexuality education to our children.

The Need for Good Sex Education

Without good sex education, we grow up with a considerable number of incorrect ideas about sex and a lot of gaps in the good information we're able to get. We learn early on to be secretive about our sexual explorations and not to talk about sex to the adults in our lives. We feel guilty about our "normal" thoughts or actions—because we don't know they're normal. This continues to haunt us as our bodies develop and our interest in sex increases.

If we have some childhood sex play, we don't know it's normal, because it's never been discussed. If we masturbate as children, we may not know anyone else has ever done this or that it has a name or that it's normal, because this too has never been discussed. (Boys are more likely than girls to talk among themselves about masturbation, and it's fairly common for boys to masturbate together.) Most children have some kind of sexual fantasies or engage in some kind of early sex play that frightens them and leaves them feeling guilty. This leads to the vague feeling that sex is bad—and that they are bad.

One thing we do extremely well in our society is produce guilt in our children, particularly in the area of sexual behavior. Shame and guilt are pretty effective at inhibiting behavior, but they are even better at inhibiting openness about behavior. Once a child has hidden a lot of stuff from their parents, the fear of dealing with it often becomes larger than life. If a child can acknowledge these experiences to an accepting adult, it defuses the fear and guilt and opens up channels for future communication. The longer they are hidden, the more difficult it becomes to deal with them.

It takes a concentrated effort to make it easy for our kids to talk about sex at each stage of their development. They need to be able to discuss their feelings and experiences and hear us say, "that's normal; that's OK; that happened to me too." Even then, they may never completely shake the automatic guilt feelings they experience whenever they think about their childhood sexual explorations.

As parents, it's never too late to develop an open relationship with our kids and start undoing the damage from a lack of good sex education. We need to attempt to stop the negative attitudes where they're destructive and replace them with a healthy, responsible outlook on sex.

WHAT YOU CAN DO AS A PARENT

Ideally, the family assumes the primary responsibility for a child's healthy sexual development. So what can you as a parent do to reflect that responsibility? First, of course, is to monitor your actions (and reactions) when the child is very young. Then, before specifically talking to your child about sex, it's important that you inform yourself. If you lack a basic knowledge about sex, you can start by reading some good books. Or you can attend a Parent-Child Communication Training Course sponsored by a responsible organization.

It's also important that you provide books for your child. But books are no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Children need the factual information available in books combined with the kind of personal interactions based on caring that only you can provide.

General Guidelines for Parents:

1. Acknowledge that good sex education is one of your most critical responsibilities as a parent.

2. Accept that sex education involves everything you say (or don't say) and do (or don't do) about sexual matters.

3. Realize that even with the best of intentions, your fears and biases may intrude on your efforts. Monitor them well.

4. Be firm, but gentle with yourself. No matter how difficult it feels, persevere.

5. Be alert to your child's subtle ways of asking for information—through questions about friends or recounting of gossip.

Some Tips offered by Planned Parenthood:

1. Be an "askable" parent.

2. Be honest: honesty is an essential ingredient for positive talks with children about sex.

3. Don't worry if you don't have all the answers. Saying, "I don't know, but let's find out together" is a way to promote more discussion.

4. Listen carefully to a child's questions; be sure you understand what lies behind them.

5. Don't worry if your child does not bring up the subject of sex. Just use "teachable moments" [when TV or everyday events provide opportunities] to open the lines of communication, while respecting the child's privacy.

SOME BENEFITS FROM YOUR EFFORTS

1. When your children become adults, they'll be healthier sexually.

2. When you nurture your young children's natural curiosity without being too quick to constrain it, they're less likely to be victims of sexual frustration or sexual deviancy when they become adults. While we need some restrictions around childhood expressions of sexuality, our reactions to the natural sexuality in small children are much too severe.

3. When you deal responsibly with sexual issues when your children are young, you set the stage for your children to be able to deal responsibly with sexual issues throughout our lives. As adults, they'll be more likely to be able to develop a satisfying sexual relationship if you protected them from getting the message that sex is "bad." Many of our later problems in marriage are rooted in our early childhood learnings about sex. Effective sex education is, therefore, critical to addressing the whole range of issues involved in developing a good relationship.

4. Your children will have higher self-esteem and be better protected from abuse. When your children are educated about their bodies and body parts when they're young, they're likely to understand about good and bad touching and how to avoid the bad. They're also likely to be capable of speaking out about any kind of abuse or inappropriate sexual contact. When you provide good early sex education, your little girls are likely to develop a healthy sense of sex while growing—helping them avoid problems with self-esteem. This, in turn, can prevent them from being vulnerable to being subjected to some kind of abuse (such as rape or domestic violence) later on—and to realize that if it were to happen, it wouldn't be their fault.

Communicating With Your Teen About Sex

As parents who have already survived our kids' teenage years, we want to start by reassuring you that it's possible not only to survive, but to lay the groundwork for a lasting relationship based on open communication. Naturally, this will be more likely if you have already established good communication with your kids. But if you haven't, now is the time to make a total commitment to starting this process.

Perhaps you fear that acknowledging and dealing openly with the reality of teenage sexual activity will somehow "encourage" your teen to be sexually active. Overwhelmingly, the studies of this issue say just the opposite is true. It's the lack of communication that contributes to irresponsible sexual behavior by teenagers.

Not talking to your teen about sex (or talking to them only in terms of "don't") won't keep them from having sex - but it WILL keep them from letting you know about it. Most teenagers are going to engage in sex whether or not their parents or other adults acknowledge they know it or openly discuss it with them.

FACING THE FACTS OF TEENAGE SEXUALITY

Ideally, young people would wait to become sexually active until they are fully prepared to deal with the physical, emotional, and psychological effects. Realistically, this wasn't happening when we grew up, isn't happening now, and isn't likely to happen in the future.

There are, of course, a few teenagers who show almost no interest in sex. But in most cases, sex is an extremely important subject for teens. Don't rationalize that it's not an issue for YOUR teen; don't allow yourself to ignore or deny the reality of teenage sexuality. If you're under the illusion that teenage sex is not something you need to be concerned about (for whatever reason), please consider the following evidence of the degree to which young people are engaging in sex.

A survey of 11,631 high schoolers, conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control, reported on the numbers of teens having sex, by grade:

  • Ninth-graders - 40 percent
  • Tenth-graders - 48 percent
  • Eleventh-graders - 57 percent
  • Twelfth-graders - 72 percent

The above is consistent with the results of an earlier report published by the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly on Sexual Behavior Among High School Students in the United States. It showed:

  • 76 percent of boys having intercourse before completing high school
  • 67 percent of girls having intercourse before completing high school

Another report by James Patterson and Peter Kim in their book, The Day America Told the Truth, based on those currently ages eighteen to twenty-four, showed:

  • almost two-thirds (61 percent) had engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 16.
  • more than one in five first had sex at age 13 or younger!

While these are only a few of the statistics showing the prevalence of teenage sex, they are consistent with the many reports on this issue. It's important not to get bogged down in a debate about statistics since this serves to distract us from focusing on the important job of actually addressing the situation. Whatever the precise number, the bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of teenagers are sexually active, including those teens you might think least likely. According to a study of 1,000 students in Chicago, it was found that factors such as grades, religion, and school activities did not make a difference. (Our personal experience is a perfect example of this point. When we were dating as teenagers, we were excellent students, active in sports and many extracurricular activities, and regular participants in religious activities - yet we began having sexual intercourse when we were juniors in high school.)

RISKS: AIDS, STD'S, PREGNANCY...

As adults who are concerned about teens' health and well-being, we can't understand how they can be willing to take the risks involved with sex - often without birth control. But it's evident that they don't consider the consequences to be as serious as they really are. There's also the natural human tendency to consider any potential problem and think, "It'll never happen to me."

Twenty percent (20%) of AIDS cases occur in people in their 20s - most likely infected as teens. (From Sex and America's Teenagers, a report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute).

According to a survey of 11,631 high schoolers conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control:
Number having a total of four or more sexual partners:

  • Boys - 27 percent
  • Girls - 12 percent

According to Sex and America's Teenagers, a report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, more than 1 out of 10 teens contracts a sexually transmitted disease each year. The prevalence of STD's among teens is easy to understand when we realize the numbers of sex partners. The same report showed:

  • By their early 20s, 71% of sexually experienced young women have had more than one partner, 21% have had six or more partners.

Another traumatic consequence of poor parent-child communication is the increased likelihood of an unwanted teenage pregnancy. Lack of good information and misinformation lead many teenagers to ignore the possibility of pregnancy until it happens. If they are able to talk to their parents about sex while growing up, they may get information or perspective that could prevent the pregnancy.

Many parents fear that talking with their kids about sex will stimulate sexual activity. Overwhelmingly, those who have studied this situation say just the opposite is true. It's the lack of communication that contributes to irresponsible sexual behavior by teenagers. Unfortunately, parents tend to ignore the evidence of the prevalence of sexual activity and pregnancy among teenagers.

As one astute 17-year old explained, "It isn't the kids of parents who say they are for or against sex...who get pregnant. It's the kids who can't talk to their parents at all." But if teenagers can't discuss routine sexual issues they deal with on an ongoing basis, they're unlikely to feel they can come to us in times of serious problems, like an unwanted pregnancy.

The seriousness of this particular problem is illustrated by the following fact: "The conflicted and dogmatic way we teach children about sexuality in America is obviously not working. Our pregnancy rate for girls under age fifteen is more than five times the rate of any developed country, anywhere in the world!" (From Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing, vol. 1, edited by Cheryl D. Hayes; Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.)

Teenagers are becoming sexually active earlier and they are far more sophisticated in their sexual behavior than teenagers of two generations ago. Unfortunately, they aren't sophisticated enough in some respects. Even though they can walk into any drug store and buy a variety of birth control devices or have a doctor prescribe one without their parent's consent, unwanted teenage pregnancies are hitting epidemic proportions.

"In 1960, only 5% of American children were born to unmarried mothers. Today, nearly a third of children are born without the father present to help nurture and sustain the family. Children in single-parent families are five times more likely to grow up in poverty." (USA Today)

Pregnancy rates according to Sex and America's Teenagers, a report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute:

  • One in 4 young women gets pregnant by age 18; half have a pregnancy by 21.
  • 85% of teen pregnancies are unintended.
  • Half of teen pregnancies end in births, a third in abortion, the rest in miscarriage.

At a time when teens greatly need their parents' help and support, they feel they must handle it alone. Had they been able to confide in them the moment the pregnancy was suspected, they may have been able to think more clearly about what actions to take. If they decide to have an abortion, their parents may never know. If they decide to bear the child, they may rush into a marriage that's doomed before it starts. About 70% of all teen marriages (whether or not a child is involved) end in divorce. The extra pressure of starting out with a child makes it even more difficult.

No matter what happens, a teenage pregnancy is likely to have a significant effect on the rest of their lives. One of several messages the Children's Defense Fund (CD) is aiming at adolescents and adults in its new media campaign: "Teenage pregnancy is like being grounded for 18 years."

BREAKING THROUGH THE SECRECY SURROUNDING SEX

When our own kids became teenagers, we had many of the same fears and concerns of most parents, but we felt strongly about the need to maintain good communication with our kids and we wanted to change the pattern of secrecy we had experienced as teenagers ourselves. By avoiding the secretive atmosphere within the family about sexual matters and making it easy for your teen to ask you for information and advice that they would otherwise get elsewhere, you have the opportunity to influence the values and behavior of your teen in a way that traditional ways of relating have not made possible.

PROBLEM: Pretending You Don't Know What's Happening

Parents and teens often engage in an uneasy truce where each is playing their role in a game of "let's pretend." The rules of the game are unwritten, but they're pretty well understood; they're based on avoiding the whole issue. Parents conscientiously go about ignoring, denying, and rationalizing that their teen is engaging in sex, and the teen just as conscientiously avoids saying anything to change the parents' assumption. This arrangement might be called a game of "don't ask, don't tell."

A slight variation on this game is for parents to acknowledge to themselves that their teenager is likely to be sexually active, but not to acknowledge this to the teenager for fear it somehow implies approval. While this may protect the parents from having to deal with this issue, the kids pay the price. Teenagers need to be able to talk about their questions and concerns in order to make more informed, responsible decisions.

Another variation is when parents are primarily concerned about making sure no one else knows they know their teen is sexually active. Somehow, being a "good" parent means that if we acknowledge knowing, we should be able to control the behavior in a way that isn't realistically possible. So avoiding the whole issue is a way of "saving face." Ironically, those parents most concerned about the "proper" image are likely to do the most toward programming their kids for sexual deception. This is not to lay a guilt trip on parents. We do the best we can (and we have enough guilt without any additional burdens), but we need to look honestly at the consequences of our attitudes.

Here's an illustration of how this kind of pretense plays out between parent and teen:

Parent: You suspect (actually know on some level) that your teenager is probably sexually active, but you stop short of asking direct questions to find out for sure. Instead, you make vague statements about the dangers of being sexually active or you issue ultimatums about curfews, grounding, and other controls on your teen's whereabouts. Out of fear, you bring out a stern warning just as your teenager is going out the door. You toss off a statement about being careful, not staying out too late, or not falling in with a bad crowd. (These last-minute cautionary statements have almost no effect at all, unless it's to shut down further communication - which is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen.)

Teen: Since your parent doesn't ask you point-blank if you're having sex, you don't volunteer that information. Instead, you respond to their vague comments with vague reassurances aimed at reinforcing their desire to believe you're not sexually active. When your parent throws out their words of caution as you're leaving the house, you either make no reply at all or perhaps mutters "uh huh" to acknowledge their comment.

SOLUTION: Talking to Your Teen on an Ongoing Basis

Being a responsible parent involves talking to your teen on an ongoing basis. But before you can even begin these discussions, you need to get good clarity yourself. For instance, you'll need to examine what you're bringing to the discussion. How can you avoid the trap of being just another voice from the past, trying to get your kids to conform to the values your parents passed on to you? One way is to acknowledge that some of the values you learned are probably worth passing on and others need to be updated. This is a challenging task, but one that is essential to being prepared to deal with the questions your teenager faces today. Your teen is unlikely to be clear about what you're trying to say unless you are clear about it yourself, so you need to organize your thinking into a coherent list of the important learnings you want to communicate.

Since you can't anticipate the precise issues your teen will face at any given moment, you can't tell them precisely what to say or do. But you can help them be prepared to face any situation by establishing the kind of relationship where you can talk about issues they face AS THEY ARISE. Of course, in the meantime, you need to help them think about these issues in advance so they'll be better prepared to make responsible decisions. This involves developing a "way of thinking" about the whole issue of sexual involvement that fortifies your teen with the ability to avoid being "swept along" in the moment. Together, you need to establish some guidelines they can use when faced with making a choice about any sexual question.

SETTING GUIDELINES

Here are the guidelines we used to help prepare our kids to deal in a responsible way with whatever situation they might face.

  • Don't allow others to pressure you into sexual acts you're uncomfortable with, and don't pressure others to conform to your wishes.
  • Take responsibility for your own satisfaction or lack of it and for the impact of your behavior on your partner.
  • Consider and be prepared to deal with the consequences of your sexual behavior.
  • Think for yourself. Don't "go along with the crowd" or automatically reject what your parents have to say. Talk to others, listen to them, and then decide for yourself.
  • Develop a healthy attitude toward sex, appreciating it's beauty as part of a loving relationship.
  • Base your sexual relationships on equality. An imbalance of power and control leads to frustration, unhappiness, and regret.
  • Build your sexual relationships on a basis of honesty. Dishonesty or deception may be tempting, but it will keep you from enjoying the intimacy that's possible only in an open, honest relationship.

The guidelines listed above are only an example. You need to develop your own list based on considering your personal values and beliefs in the context of the reality of the world in which your teens live. Start by writing down your thoughts and opinions - just for your own clarity. Then review and edit what you've written over a period of time to be sure you've carefully thought through all aspects of these issues.

Please note that your written guidelines are NOT to be given to your teen. They would only sound like parental absolutes. They are your own homework in preparing yourself to speak more clearly and coherently whenever you discuss them with your teen. This kind of preparation is necessary because your success in making a difference in your teen's behavior depends on preparing your kids to respond to each situation as it arises - from their own understanding, not from someone else's script. Admittedly, this is harder to do, but it's the only thing worth doing.

Finally, it's important to remember that you bear the burden of carrying the conversations with your teen. It's your responsibility to initiate dialogue; you can't expect or wait for them to take the initiative. If your teen does seek your counsel and guidance, great. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. It's up to you to start the dialogue - and to sustain it. This means being persistent and not giving up.

EAVESDROPPING ON THE EFFORT TO START A PARENT-TEEN DIALOGUE

Parent: "When I was your age, our parents used to worry about our getting into heavy petting. Do you know what that means?"

Teen: "No, I don't know what that means." (said with a sigh of exasperation)

Parent: "Petting is showing affection by touch - holding hands, hugging, kissing... Heavy petting is when you're touching parts of the body that you wouldn't normally touch in front of others - like breasts or genitals. Or when you're in a place like a parked car where you can do lots of rubbing body against body, and one or both of you are feeling very aroused."

Teen: "Oh, Mom (or Dad)." (said with a touch of embarrassment or aggravation)

Parent: "What do you and your friends call that, 'making out' or what?"

Teen: "Yea, some call it 'making out.'"

Parent: "The reason parents worry about their kids making out is they know that one thing can lead to another very quickly."

Teen: (just looks at the parent with a look that is some mix of exasperation and disgust)

Parent: "Everybody faces decisions about how far to go. These are some of the most important decisions you'll ever make, and you're going to be facing them at a time when you may not have the clearest head to think through them. I hope we can talk about it before you're in that situation. I know you'll make your own decisions (and we've tried to give you information and perspective that would help you), but it's complicated, and we're prepared to talk with you as much as you want. This may feel so personal and awkward to you that it doesn't seem possible to discuss it. I want you to know that it feels awkward to me too, but I'm willing to talk about it because it's so important."

Teen: (gets up and turns on the TV)

DOING WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED (THERE ARE NO SHORT-CUTS)

You will have to make this effort over and over and over - until your teen decides its safe and smart to talk to you about these issues. It will be a gradual process of developing trust and comfort in talking with each other. You may wish there were a script you could follow in talking to your teen, as well as a script they could follow in talking to any potential sex partner. That's an understandable desire; everybody wants to be told what to say in situations like this. We've been programmed to follow a script instead of coming up with our own ways of talking. Books follow a formula; talk shows follow a formula; most complex issues such as this are addressed in soundbites - and it just doesn't work. It's not responsible or valid; it's useless at best and counterproductive at worst. If you try to wrap yourself in certain words like putting on a coat, you'll never get in the trenches and learn it from the inside out. Depending on someone else's words prevents you from finding your own voice.

The focus on formulas and precise words is one of the main reason parents have not been more effective in handling the sex education of their teens up to now.

Your challenge is not to find the right words; it's to develop the right attitude - based on creating a climate of openness for dialogue. In fact, real dialogue by its very nature is the opposite of a script made up of specific words. When you work on your own attitudes and beliefs, the "right" words will arise from there. This involves genuinely believing in the benefits of open communication, and demonstrating to your teen that they can feel safe to confide in you, knowing you will talk WITH them, not AT them.

When you understand that responsible sex education involves a great deal more than questions and answers, you will have gone a long way toward establishing effective communication with your teen. In fact, one of the burdens parents have labored under is the idea that the most important factor in providing good sex education for their kids involves answering their questions. This is not the primary task of the parent; there are plenty of books that can provide factual answers to questions. But no one else can provide the kind of real communication that's essential for teens to be able to benefit from the factual information.

For instance, one of the most thorough books of factual sex information is one that is written entirely in question and answer form, with the child asking the question and the parent answering. It's great as to the facts it contains, but it's totally useless as a guide for parent-child communication - because no typical child would ever ask the questions as they're presented and no typical parent would ever give those responses. So to think of communication with your teen in terms of questions and answers is to totally miss the point. And "coaching" your teen as to what they could say in various circumstances prevents them from being able to think for themselves and act responsibly in any situation. You can't possibly give your teen the specific words to use in every situation they will face - and we can't give you specific words to use in talking with your teen.

We're not, however, abandoning you to your own devices. We want to help you develop a RELATIONSHIP with your teen that will allow you to have the kind of ongoing dialogue that's essential. If you don't work on the quality of your relationship, no words will "work." If you develop a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, the words will follow naturally. Your communication will be based on a true give and take of ideas - not a one-way street where you tell them precisely what to do and what not to do.

Nothing - no specific information or beliefs or rules - is as important as keeping open the lines of communication with your teenager. If you lecture your teenager instead of just talking with them, they're likely to tune you out and take in very little of what you have to say. In addition, they're likely to block you out of knowing what they're thinking and doing regarding most important issues in their lives, including sexual issues. The power you may feel you're exercising by "laying down the law" as to what your kids can and cannot do is an illusion. If you make sex into a battleground with a winner and a loser, you're sure to lose. You may not know at the time that you're losing, but you are. (And so are they.)"

You're not only losing the benefit of having your teen confide in you and consult with you about sexual matters, but you're losing their openness to confiding in you about other serious issues, like drugs. The more you move toward open discussion, the clearer it becomes that the lack of honest communication about sexual issues is at the core of the seemingly inevitable conflicts between parents and teens. If you break through that barrier, you'll find your teenager won't have the same need to "shut you out" or be sullen or uncommunicative. By avoiding a power struggle, you can avoid being alienated from your teen just when they need you most.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE - THROUGH INFLUENCE, NOT CONTROL

Never think for a moment that your teen doesn't want or doesn't need to talk with you about the issues that concern them; they're simply unwilling to expose themselves to parents who they believe will only be critical and judgmental. If you want to make a difference in the choices your teen makes, you have a better chance if you focus on how you can influence them rather than trying to control them.

The truth is that you can't control what your teenager does sexually, but you can influence them if you establish a trusting relationship so they can talk to you without fear or embarrassment. While you may genuinely believe they should abstain from sex during their teen years, this needs to be a result of their decision, not your demand.

Most of us have no models for the kind of skilled communication we're suggesting. We often make an attempt to start and then get discouraged when the kids don't buy in immediately or when they callously rebuff our best efforts. But we must persist in trying to establish a new way of relating to our kids. There's a striking difference in the effect on your teen based on whether you're rigid and absolute or understanding and available. The difference is clearly indicated in the following scenarios.

PROBLEM: Being Rigid and Absolute

Parent: Since you believe you know what's best for your teen, you try to impose your will on them. You don't wait for them to ask for your opinion or advice; you give it to them constantly, with an air of superiority that shows them clearly who's "boss." For instance, you don't have conversations with you teen about sex; you give "orders" as to where they can and can't go, what they can and can't wear, and what they will and won't be allowed to do.

Teen: You don't directly confront your parent because you know it won't do any good. You just turn inward, avoiding contact and conversation with them. You stay in your room a lot whenever you're home, which is as little as possible. You feel perfectly justified in deceiving them - about your sex life and about all other aspects of your life. You're convinced they wouldn't understand anything about you anyway, so you find other people who do "understand," and shift your allegiance and sense of belonging to them.

SOLUTION: Being Understanding and Available

Parent: Even though you have many demands on your time and energy - job, family, community - you make a point of noticing when your teen seems inclined to talk and you make every effort to be fully available at that moment, before it passes. You realize that you can't schedule opportunities to relate to your teenager, like insisting that the family has at least one meal together each day. Instead, you stay tuned in to the subtle signs they send that indicate they might be open to discussing something with you. You know that if they feel they have to fight for your attention, they won't bother; so you stay "connected."

You make a conscious, deliberate decision that maintaining this connection is a high priority, and you don't let other things crowd it out. (Personally, I've always been clear that this connection - based on being understanding and available - was my number one priority in my relationship with our kids, not only while they were growing up, but continuing now that they're adults.)

Teen: You're very conscious of the fact that your parent is "there" for you, not just physically present, but also "on your side." You feel more capable of making good decisions, knowing you're not alone, that you can discuss issues with your parent. Because of their level-headed reaction to whatever you talk to them about, you get the feeling that you could discuss anything with them - and you do. (To my delight, our son once said to me, "You know, mom, I think I could tell you absolutely anything.")

DEMONSTRATING HONESTY

As the parent of a teen, you may have said, "you can come to me with any questions," or "you can talk to me about anything." But most teens won't feel safe to do that unless you "go first" by showing it's a two-way street. Only if they hear that you had some of the same questions and concerns when you were a teenager are they likely to believe you actually understand what they're going through. So if you want your kids to come to you with their problems and concerns about sexual matters (and other problems as well), you might better achieve this by setting an example, by telling your kids about your own time as a teenager and how you felt and acted regarding sexual matters.

You may be very uncomfortable with this whole idea of being honest with your kids about sex. Understandably, you might prefer to forget (or hide) some of your own teenage experiences, but telling them is not as much risk as you might think because they see right through the hypocrisy anyway. It may help to remind yourself that it's not a matter of "show and tell." In fact, the main teaching is not about sex per se, it's about the importance of honesty - honesty in all important matters. You're "educating" your teens about much more than sex. You're helping them grow in their ability to make good choices and to decide important issues in life for themselves.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

You may feel so overwhelmed by the whole issue of teenage sexuality that you'd prefer to ignore it altogether. But if you do, you'll only perpetuate the failure that has been passed down for generations - failing to help young people deal with their sexuality in a healthy, responsible way.

Here's what you can do to break the cycle:

  • Give your teen good factual information.
  • Acknowledge their desires, fears, motivations, and pressures.
  • Be honest with your teen by sharing relevant information about your own teen years.
  • Discuss with them their alternatives instead of laying out absolute demands.
  • Guide them in making informed choices.
  • Support them in their effort to be responsible.
  • "Be there" for them - no matter what.

Your Greatest Challenge

Keeping open the lines of communication is the real challenge you face as a parent today. Forget about control. Work hard to maintain the ability to influence your teen. Don't create or get drawn into a power struggle. This does not mean that you are "settling" for less; quite the contrary. It means you're pursuing a more significant goal that will allow you to have a much greater impact on your teen's well-being.

Some Ideas to Help You Face this Challenge

  • Acknowledge that your teenager is probably going to experiment with sex. Help them do so honestly and responsibly. Forget about "just say no." It doesn't work; never has and never will.

  • Encourage your teenager to come to you with any and all questions, fears, or concerns; and when they do, never discount them - no matter what they have to say.

  • Put your critical/judgmental side behind lock and key, even though this will take some work.

  • Provide books for your teenager to read and read the books yourself so you're prepared to discuss them.

  • Build trust by sharing, when they are relevant, your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences when you were their age. Resist the temptation to use platitudes or to lecture.

  • Avoid focusing your comments about sex only on "negatives." It's important to also reinforce the gentle, caring, pleasurable aspects of loving sex.

LOOKING AT THE SEXUAL QUESTIONS TEENAGERS FACE

As a parent, you need to be aware of the multitude of sexual choices faced by teenagers today. If you think only in terms of issues related to sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and AIDS, you may have a false sense of security that you're "doing a good job" with the sex education of your teen. But this doesn't begin to address the wide range of choices teens are making on a daily basis.

To clarify just how big an issue this is, we've made a list of some of the sexual questions about which teens make choices. As you read through this list, you may have the impulse to react with a giant NO at the very thought of such questions. You may hope your teen simply won't be faced with some of these dilemmas, but the reality is that they will make many choices about sex - with or without any input from you. Since these questions won't go away if you ignore them, you need to deliberately focus on them in order to overcome whatever natural resistance you may have to confronting these issues.

Don't turn back now.
This is the world your teenager has to deal with, whether or not you help them.
Be a responsible parent; don't let them face these questions alone.

Now is the time to TAKE A DEEP BREATH and look directly at what's "out there" -
both at some of the general issues and some of the specific questions facing teenagers today.

Here are some of the general issues young people face in dealing with sex:

Is there anything wrong with petting, as long as it's not too heavy?

  • When does petting become too heavy?
  • If you really love the other person, does that make it OK?
  • Is it different if you avoid genital contact?
  • What if you just fondle each other to climax?

What if you limit yourselves to oral sex?

  • Are you still a virgin if you only have oral sex?
  • Should you have oral sex just to please the other person?

  • How can you prevent AIDS and other STD's?
  • Are condoms always necessary?
  • When do you need to ask your partner if they've been tested for AIDS?

What about masturbation?

  • What if you just do it alone?
  • What about masturbating with another person?

What about intercourse?

  • At what age?
  • Must you love the other person?
  • What if you just want to find out what it feels like?
  • What constitutes having sex?
  • What about stopping short of penetration?
  • How about penetration, but always withdrawing before ejaculation?
  • How can you prevent pregnancy?
  • What if a pregnancy results anyway?

Here are some of the specific questions teens confront:

FOR COUPLES: At what age and under what conditions to:

  • "french-kiss?"
  • undress each other?
  • talk about what it would be like to have sex? (to make love?)
  • talk about birth control?

FOR HIM: At what age and under what conditions to:

  • fondle her breasts?
  • kiss her breasts?
  • rub his penis against her body with their clothes on?
  • put his hand inside her pants?
  • put his finger in her vagina?
  • kiss her vagina?
  • rub his bare penis directly on her vagina without penetration?
  • penetrate her vagina with his penis?
  • ejaculate in her vagina?

FOR HER: At what age and under what conditions to:

  • put her hand inside his pants?
  • rub her vagina on his leg to orgasm?
  • masturbate him by hand to orgasm?
  • put his penis in her mouth?
  • swallow his semen?

Does it matter if one is older than the other? How much older?
What if she likes him a lot, but is not comfortable with doing what he wants to do?
Should she do it just to please him?
What should she do if he brags to others about their sexual activity?
Should she ever tell others about what she's done sexually?

If she's sexually active:

  • Should she take birth control pills or use some other form of female birth control?
  • Should she carry condoms?

If he's sexually active:

  • Should he carry condoms?
  • What if someone of the same sex makes a sexual advance?
  • What if someone is sexually attracted to someone of the same sex?

DEVELOPING THE ABILITY TO DISCUSS THESE QUESTIONS (You CAN do it)

How did you react to these questions? If you had a hard time simply reading through the list, imagine what it's like for your teenager to try to sort through the confusion they're sure to experience. Certainly, facing these issues is tough, but it's part of the responsibility of being a parent. You CAN learn to talk to your teen - and this is precisely what we want to help you do. The first step is to establish the necessary framework for approaching this task. Here are six basic understandings that are critical to your success:

1. It's important to talk to your teen.

Your success at becoming comfortable with talking to your teen about these issues depends in large part on your belief in the importance of doing so. Here's why it's important. You make it virtually impossible for your teen to develop sexual responsibility if you don't discuss sex with them - or if your simply try to dictate their behavior. Responsibility comes only through the ability to make informed choices. And informed choices aren't possible unless your teen can have ongoing dialogue with a responsible adult - preferably you, their parent - who cares about their well-being.

2. Your teen's sex education is your responsibility.

If you think you're simply not up to the task of talking to your teen about sex, it doesn't mean you're "off the hook." It's still your responsibility to see that your teen has someone to talk to about these issues, preferably another family member who cares for their well-being. You can also encourage your teen to seek out information about sex and sexuality from school counselors or other agencies serving teenagers. Don't leave them to rely on luck, instinct, or friends for such critical information. They're forming sexual attitudes and habits that will influence their entire life. It's too important to be left to chance.

3. You don't have to have all the answers.

It's important to realize that your teen is unlikely to actually ask you these questions. So you don't need to have answers. You would never sit down and go through this entire list with your teen. That would be overwhelming for everyone. This is background work, homework, in preparation for the only practical way of talking to your teen - on an ongoing basis as the opportunity arises, never as a formal "sex talk." You simply need to be aware of the questions and be willing to discuss them with your teen so they can learn to make responsible decisions.

4. You can learn whatever you need to know.

Getting correct factual information is a minor problem compared to the much tougher problem of actually talking about sex with your teenager. When you look over these questions, you see that many of them don't require factual information. They require thoughtful discussion of how to respond to these situations. But if you don't feel well-enough informed about sexual facts, that's an easy problem to solve. It's just one-two-three. 1) Go to your local library or bookstore and get some of the excellent books included in the bibliography at the back of this book. 2) Read them carefully - and re-read them whenever you feel unsure about some facts. 3) Practice talking about some of these issues with your partner, or some other adult (friend or family member).

5. You can learn to deal with these issues.

With so much at stake, you can't afford to sacrifice having access to your teen's questions, concerns, temptations, and choices - so you need to overcome whatever resistance you may feel in dealing with these issues. One way to do that is to systematically re-read the list of questions at least once a week for a couple of months, then read them out loud (and discuss them) with your partner or other trusted friend or family member. The idea is to become more comfortable in thinking about and talking about these issues before attempting to discuss them with your teen.

6. You're "in this together" with your teen.

Perhaps the most important tip for helping you overcome your awkwardness in talking to your kids about sex is to realize that you're in this together. Your kids feel awkward about it too. Instead of a barrier, this can be the first area on which you find a way to connect with each other. Acknowledge to your teen that you're uncomfortable - but that you're willing to discuss these issues anyway. The bottom line is to remind your teen (and yourself) that the reason for discussing these sexual questions is because you love them and care about their well-being.

Hopefully this information has helped you see how your "attitude" is critical to your success as a parent in taking responsibility for the sex education of your teen.

To read more about the urgency of taking responsibility for your child's sex education, see:
Now more than ever, kids need effective sex ed
Sex Secrets: A Wake-up Call for Parents

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