Teenage years are a time of dramatic change – an explosive mix of rapid emotional, social, physical development and most likely first romantic experiences that turn yesterday’s children into young adults embarking on an exciting journey of sexual exploration.
Although teenagers hit an inevitable milestone of sexual development during puberty, sexuality begins in early infancy. Thus, the moment we become parents, sex education from the early years should become a part of our daily lives. Sexual attitudes and normalizing sex talk about it lay the groundwork for healthy relationships, intimacy, sex, and a healthy self-image later on in life.
Now, What’s Your Attitude Towards Sex?
If you rely solely on the school sex-ed to do the job, you may be missing out. When it comes to teen sexual development, surprisingly, it’s not social media or friends, not even teachers and religious leaders, that have the most impact. Research shows that adolescents aged 12 to 19 find their parents the most significant influence factor (38%) regarding their sexual behavior and values. Sex education starts at home as children learn implicitly by simply observing parents. You are already passing on your sexual attitudes – whether positive or negative – to your children, often without even realizing it.
Teach without teaching
Before bringing up the sex topic with your teen, examine your attitudes to sex and pleasure. Is there an idea of it as taboo, dangerous, or shameful? Do you express sex-negativity?
The way you talk about yourself, your own body, sexuality, as well as about other people affects your child’s self-image and their perception of themself as a sexual being. The most effective education is leading by example.
A study confirms that parents affect adolescent sexual behaviors through both verbal and non-verbal communication. According to it, children who discuss sex with parents are likely to have later sexual debut and engage in safer sexual relationships. In contrast, nonverbal sexual communication links to lower feelings of sexual guilt in grownups. Nonverbal messages may include:
- Attitude towards nudity in the home
- Parent’s perceived sexual life
- Contraceptive use
- Displays of affection between parents
Growing up in families with more open sexual communication helps develop more positive sexual attitudes. So, it’s crucial that parents educate themselves, develop a healthy attitude to sex, and come to terms with their sexuality in the first place.
Teach through love
Emotions run high in teens, especially when it comes to their feelings about themselves and where they fit in socially. Helping your teen create a strong sense of self and feel good about themself establishes a solid base for healthy sexuality development.
Children are likely to inherit their parents’ self-image issues, so it’s important to pay attention to the messages you are sending and model the type of attitude and behavior you want your teen to adopt. To sow the seeds of self-and sex positivity, provide your child with a safe and loving environment to grow in, cultivate self-care, self-respect, positive body image, self-acceptance, and respect your teen’s boundaries.
Here are some rules to stick to:
- Accept and love your children for who they are. Teach them no one needs to be perfect to be valued and loved.
- Provide a safe, loving environment to talk about anything. Be empathetic and communicate with kids with respect.
- Don’t criticize kids or compare them to their peers. Keep conversations with them about their body and sexuality private.
- Share your own experience growing up. Reassure your child that our bodies all tend to grow at different rates.
- Share your ideas and beliefs about body image, sexual attractiveness, sexuality, and health.
- Stay involved with the school to make sure they feel comfortable there, too. Look out for signs of bullying.
- Help your child find inspiring role models for a positive self-image among friends, family members, communities, and other support groups.
What Your Kids Need to Learn and When
As much as being a positive role model and leading by example matters, in sexual education, certain questions have to be voiced and communicated, and not just once. Sex and sexuality are a subject for ongoing discussion with a broad set of topics for age-appropriate sex talks to bring up throughout your children’s lives.
When is the best time to start a conversation?
They say the best time is when your child starts asking questions, but it’s never too early to educate children on sexuality-related matters that are already accessible to them. For example, young children should know the correct names of private body parts, the underwear rule, and what good and bad touching are – it’s a matter of safety and the basic knowledge of consent and boundaries.
Laying the groundwork with open and honest talks about bodies and “where the babies come from” will normalize these subjects and make later conversations easier.
When is “too late” then? By the time your child approaches puberty, they are likely to have already picked up some information on sex from sources that aren’t always credible. Avoiding, or better, preventing misinformation is in everyone’s interest.
It’s also important to pick the right moment to talk. Keep it casual and seize opportunities to bring up the topics when both of you feel comfortable – in a car ride, while cooking or watching TV together. You can refer to something you’ve seen or read recently to initiate the dialogue.
What topics should we discuss?
You should address a lot of information with your teen to help them grow a healthy attitude to sex. So, let’s go through the essential topics:
- The anatomy and sexual physiology (of both sexes).
No matter your kid’s age, avoid using euphemisms for genitals since they communicate feelings of taboo and embarrassment about perfectly normal words for perfectly normal body parts. Using anatomically correct, common body parts during sex talks with kids positively impacts their body confidence. Make sure to talk about menstruations and erections before your daughters and sons get them. It’s also important that both girls and boys know about the physical and emotional changes that the opposite sex goes through.
- Positive body image & healthy relationships.
At puberty, most kids are insecure about how their bodies change. It’s good for them to know that these changes are part of normal growing up, and the timing and pace can vary enormously for each person. A teen’s body image is easily affected by social media and its unrealistic portrayal of “ideal”, so it’s important to normalize and expose teens to real, more diverse body shapes. For the same reason, teens should know that porn isn’t a healthy depiction of reality regarding what’s “normal” down there. Try to shift your child’s focus from “beautiful” to “healthy” by adopting a healthy lifestyle and personal hygiene changes.
- Personal safety and boundaries.
In the age of the Internet, a big deal of potential threats is right at their fingertips. Just like you taught kids how to keep safe on the road, teach them about online and personal safety and the dangers of cyberbullying, online grooming, sexting, sharing nudes, and personal information online. With older children, talk about substance use, date rape drugs, and how they affect sexual decision-making. Model safe behaviors for each dangerous situation because forewarned means forearmed.
- Sexual intercourse, consent, and how to practice safe sex.
Again, porn is a bad teacher when it comes to healthy sex, but chances are your teen may have already seen it, so it’s worth explaining why porn is not what sex is in reality. Talk about different types of sex, sexual hygiene, contraception and STIs, birth control, and the risks of early sexual debut. Discuss what consent means to them and how to know if one is ready for sex. Ensure they know it’s normal to say “no” to any activity they are not prepared for, no matter how far it’s gone. Similarly, teach them about respecting other people’s right to do so at any time.
- Adolescent sexual orientation and gender identities.
Teens are going through a process of figuring out who they are, part of which is exploring their sexuality. Sometimes, their discoveries can be full of contradictions, and what they need most in this quest for self is parental complete acceptance and support in making their own choices. Talk positively about sexual and gender diversity globally, explain different family structures, gender roles and stereotypes, speak out against discrimination and show your respect to people who are different from you. It’s often problematic for teens to differentiate between gender identity and sexual orientation. You can use the “the gender unicorn” framework to educate your teen about gender diversity and help them relate it to their own experiences. Be ready to cover their questions or concerns.
- Pleasure, masturbation, intimate toys.
Sexual pleasure isn’t just an adult issue. The research found that many teenagers believed men are more likely than women to feel pleasure due to differences in biology. Sex toys and masturbation – in this context – is an important aspect of sexual wellbeing to discuss to destigmatize and normalize pleasure for young people on the verge of adulthood. For most teens, masturbation is a natural phase of getting to know their bodies and learning what feels right for them. Educating teens on how toys can aid in the self-discovery process and enhance pleasure opens the door for a healthy exploration of their sexuality and a more satisfying intimate life later on. If sex toys are something your teen is interested in, you may discuss the types of toys and explain basic safety rules.
- What’s the right age to begin having sex?
There is no right or wrong when it comes to an experience as unique as this, and the perfect time would be different for different people. According to statistics, most teens start having sex between 14-17. Having an early sexual debut isn’t all bad, research suggests. However, the experience is likely to be more rewarding if delayed until the person is mature enough to make responsible decisions. It’s disputable if parents can or should encourage their children to wait, but they definitely should make sure kids are better prepared and better educated around sex.
- Does your teen need to control sexual desire?
Like it or not, humans are designed to reproduce and will follow this ancient script no matter what. With hormones going crazy in teens, curbing the powerful urge to experience pleasure is hard. Parents can teach kids how to manage their sexual desires and relieve sexual tension in a healthy way. The most important part of it is destigmatizing desire — young people should know what they’re going through is normal and natural. At the same time, parents should help them learn the skills needed to handle teenage sex drive and make informed, sensible choices regarding sex.
Share your values and beliefs, but not impose your mindset
Sex is a sensitive subject, and parents must tread carefully when approaching it. Sexual education should not be judgemental, scary, or discouraging. Your teenager is shutting out the last thing you want for forcing your beliefs on them. As a parent, you can take advantage of the amazing opportunity of ongoing contact with your child and make the most of each interaction to build a trusting relationship between you two.
How to deal with your sexually active teen
So, it’s already happening. Now what? First, try to get your emotions under control and accept that your kid is stepping into this new stage of life. Listen to your child if they are ready to open up about their experience and try to find out what led them to decide to have sex and what they do to protect their sexual health. Before you cast your concerns, make it clear to your child you aren’t judging them, and whatever happens, they can always turn to you for support. In an unforceful manner, share your views on how to best deal with the situation (which can be anything from catching up on the safe sex practices to suggesting abstinence to setting up curfews – depending on your kid’s age, family’s values, and other factors.) Remember that the pressure to have sex is intense among teenagers, and your teen may not be emotionally ready for it. Consider professional support to help your child deal with the underlying emotional, psychological, or behavioral issues that may have contributed to early sexual activity.
The role of therapy and healing the traumas
Sexual activity can be promoted, surrounded, or followed by specific events (emotional traumas, risky behaviors, conduct problems.) Spotting and addressing in therapy these early adolescent problems can help decrease the likelihood of early (risky) sexual activity and the psychological consequences. Here are some common issues faced by teenagers to watch out for:
- Low self-esteem;
- Behavioral issues;
- Eating disorders;
- Anxiety disorders;
- Legal problems;
- Substance abuse;
- Sexual traumas;
- Gender dysphoria.
Surviving adolescence is a challenging task for everyone involved. It’s even harder to accept that your yesterday’s baby is soon setting off on the sexual journey of their own. The best you can do as a parent is equip your teen with the necessary skills they need to enjoy it safely and keep the door open for ongoing shame-free communication. Your child can grow up into a sexually responsible adult with a positive attitude to self and sex with your unconditional love and support.