Over the years working with adolescents and their families I have found that many times people find themselves in situations they are not prepared for. As parents we want to protect and help our children grow up safe and smart. We want them to understand how the world works and be prepared for what life will bring to each of them. And yet, sometimes we shy away from certain topics because it is more comfortable for us not to have hard conversations.
The human mind is amazing. Adolescents go through rapid changes during a short amount of time. Perhaps it is one of nature’s cruel tricks that our limbic systems are mature as young as 12-13 years old, and yet our prefrontal cortex might take another decade plus to catch up. To put it simply, we might have the emotional engine of a Ferrari with the brakes of Yugo. This doesn’t always set teenagers up to act rationally and logically at all times. Teens also want to be accepted, and feel important to others, and with heightened emotions and hormones they can be set up to connect in ways that bring emotional and physical consequences.
When it comes to sex, many times the adolescent body and brain says, “Go!” while a smaller voice might say, “be careful.” Without the loving guidance of informed parents sometimes this leads to unfortunate situations. An unwanted pregnancy, an STD or just the emotional toll these relationships can have on a teenager can be devastating. Early and open communication can help in this process.
So what can we do? I would like to suggest three things:
First, we can talk with our kids about sex. Our bodies are amazing and have the capacity to bring new children to life. Many times even adults don’t know basic anatomical terms. Many of us did not get a good education in human sexuality so we might not be prepared to educate our children. We can learn and then teach our children. A teenager, who understands how their body works, understands how bodies respond and the emotions are tied into these will be better equipped to make good decisions.
I am not suggesting we need to talk about the whole sexual response cycle, or all the detailed specifics, but we can talk with them to help them gain more sexual intelligence. There are four main keys to sexual intelligence: Understanding self, having sexual morals and integrity, obtaining accurate scientific sexual knowledge, and having consideration of the cultural context of sexuality.
Second, we can model good behavior. Do we tell our teens to have restraint and then not model similar behavior? Do we send the wrong message in how we act toward the opposite sex, or make derogatory comments? Are we judgmental and biased ourselves? If we need to change our own behavior, we should. Oftentimes teens will be frustrated with what they perceive to be a “do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do” attitude in their parents. We can be more consistent with what we say and do.
Third, take the time to really connect and have a good relationship with our adolescent children. Are we someone they can feel safe talking with or answering questions about sex? Do we create a warm and open environment where they do not feel judged and they feel safe talking about hard topics? Many times teens desperately want their parents to care about them, to hold boundaries, to be interested in them. Sometimes teens feel like it isn’t really cool to show these desires, but I have sat with many adolescents in therapy who wish they could feel that their parents cared about more than their behaviors. Teens want to be accepted, loved, and to be important to others. They are in the search for autonomy while still wanting that secure safe base. We can proactively create that for them while they are young, and continue to be there when the harder questions and issues arise.
Sex is often a taboo topic. Unfortunately, when there is not open communication with parents, teens will often get their information from friends, peers, or media. If we talk with our kids about sex, accurately and openly, if we model appropriate behavior, and integrity, and if we stay connected with them, we are in the position to be the people who can help raise healthy children.