Sunday, January 04, 2009

Talking to teens about sex

I've been trying to write posts about talking to teens about sex, but I keep deleting them.

As a society we seem to agree that it is better if minors are not having sex. We don't seem to agree on why. And how we talk about sex is all tied up in the why's.

I'm going to ask you to consider a couple of different possible scenarios. Let yourself react to them and then try to figure out why you react the way you do.

Scenario One:
You learn that your 13-year-old is going to parties at which performing oral sex is regarded as a party game. Your offspring, girl or boy, regards it as "not really sex". Sub-Version A: You learn about this after taking your child to the pediatrician for a sore throat and are told that he or she has gonorrhea of the throat. Sub-version B: Your offspring tells you not to worry, he or she knows all about orally transmitted STD's and uses protection.

Scenario Two:
Your 16-year-old has been in a series of relationships all of which have become sexual quickly and none of which has lasted more than a month. He or she has been using protection. You find out when you have to take your offspring to the physician for crabs.

Scenario Three:
Your 16-year-old has been in a relationship for six months. He or she comes to you and awkwardly tells you that that they recently started having sex but didn't use anything and wants to go to the physician and get tested for STD's or pregnancy (or wants advice on getting his/her partner tested).

Scenario Four:
Your 18-year-old boy tells you while you are driving down the freeway that he sort of lied the other day. Well, not really, but kind of. He really did work out at the Y like he said, but he also had sex in locker room with his new boyfriend and he just thought you should know. (That one is PURELY fictional, of course.)

Now go ahead and make up some new scenarios of your own. Change the ages. Change whether you find out, whether your kid talks to you, whether there are STD's or pregnancy or arrests. Is your response something like, "That's pretty normal behavior. I'm glad I know about it so that I can help my kid make safe decisions?" or are you thinking, "OMG!!! How could this have happened? How did I fail as a parent?" You may, of course, have different reactions to different scenarios.

I ask you to think about this because when I was a new parent to teenagers I thought that talking about sex with them was a lot like talking about plumbing only a lot more embarrassing. It was important for young people to know how the parts worked, what could happen as a result of what choices, and how to be safe. If I could just get myself to explain how, when, where, and WHY using dental dams (or equivalent) was important and do it without blushing and stammering I would be fine. Talking about sex was all about getting information into their heads.

Well, that is not quite true. I did always have the goal of wanting them to be safe talking to me.

It was different because my first teens were foster teens. That generally makes parenting the way I believe I should just a little easier. I don't waste energy worrying about whether any problem or situation is somehow my fault. It just is. I have to respond to it. I know my bioboys would profit from getting more of that sort of guilt-free parenting from me.

What has changed over the years is that I have realized that I really need also to open up lines of conversation about values. Given my values, I need to be able to talk about boundaries, intimacies, what I think it means to be intimate with someone, why I think that something is lost when physical and emotional intimacy are not in the same place. I need to have that conversation in a non-judgmental way. I know that there are people who view sexuality differently, see it as something that doesn't have to be connected to emotional intimacy. I've learned to remind myself that other views make sense. The bonobos might have it right.

I think you need to decide which is more important to you: do you want your kids to share your values or do you want them to talk to you as they work out their values? In theory you can have both, but in practice you may find that it is better to prioritize one over the other. When kids come to you as teens, you have a much better chance of succeeding in the second goal.

It is terribly difficult though. So many kids in foster care have been molested. Any attempt by an adult to initiate conversations about sex and intimacy can be triggering. So I have no practical advice. It's difficult. You have to muddle through. I do think though that it helps if you are clear with yourself about what your values are and what goals you have in having conversations with your children.

And that is my post about talking to teens about sex. Helpful, huh?

How do you handle talking to your kids about sex?

8 comments:

  1. OK none of those scenarios made me real comfy! LOL Especially since I lived scenario 1 as a teen (minus the STD) It has been a bit weird for me as a parent. My eldest, well I can literally talk w/ him about anything because he has no filters. He doesn't think ANYTHING is inappropriate which is both a blessing and a curse. So it was never hard to really talk about that stuff. Later it also became sadly apparent that it was really unlikely he'd have a relationship anytime soon as well.

    With my soon to be 13 y/o it is different. He likely did have some level of sexual molestation. At the very least saw and heard things a young child shouldn't. He came to us at 5 and though he loves us, is very slow to trust adults. He prefers info from kids, any kids and that facet of his personality scares me silly. I would rather in ANY situation, that my child came to me so that we could work on a safe plan together. And I would not demand abstinance, though it would be my preference.

    What has helped in his situation is that our UU church has an ongoing sex ed for kids at different ages and stages of development. It hasn't been something I've gone "ah someone else had the talk" it has been helpful though in opening doors FOR talk. It has offered opportunities for men to talk with the class, for gays and lesbians (many of whom are parents of his friends and whom we know socially) and for the beginnings of the discussion of the bigger ramifications of sex.

    Rob is cute. He is going to have girls interested in him and eventually he is going to be interested in them or in boys (but I'm thinking girls). My big goal is for him to trust me enough when he gets to the point where he is thinking of involvement that he WILL feel safe talking with me.

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  2. Even though I am a total prude, I am simply blunt. Tara, my 13 yr old who is developmentally 6, and I talk about sex. Or as she calls it "S-E-X". When I first met her, she had no qualms about talking about sex related things because of what she was exposed to. She also had no qualms about DOING sex related things so talking about it, reading about it, role playing APPROPRIATE behavior (i.e. NOT masturbating in public, NOT touching others kids privates, NOT running around naked, etc.) is a necessity of our lives. Thank GOD, she is now more appropriate. Yep. She has come a long way.

    What our kids have been exposed to in their pasts does make things more complicated, but it also opens that door and forces us to think outside of the box when addressing these sorts of things. I even talk about sex with my 6 yr olds, though we don't call it "sex" yet. But that is also a result of exhibited behaviors and teaching what is appropriate. When it turns into the full-blown sex talks, it will be a gradual process that will hardly be noticeable because sexualized behaviors in kids are such a regular occurrence in our house. I wish it weren't that way...but it is.

    Oh, we also talk about same sex relationships, particularly because we are pretty sure one of our kids is gay (not going to out them online out of respect for them figuring it out on their own)...though even if they weren't we would probably still talk about them.

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  3. I don't know that there's any real way to get teens to share your values except by being there for them as they muddle through their own decision making process. But, maybe that's just because the two primary values I find important, when it comes to sexuality, are respect and caring, and both are best learned through experiencing them in as many areas as possible.

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  4. Slugger is 11 and we've been talking about sex (and smoking and drugs and etc) for a year now. I just bring it up whenever I can fit it in the conversation -- and that happens more often than you would expect. At first he was horrified that I'd talk to him about these things, but now he's comfortable and open about talking and asking questions. A while ago, apropos of nothing, he asked me "what horny meant" and "what was porn."

    I think it's best to educate kids about these things. Tell them what choices we hope they will make. But also maintain enough of an open non-judgemental relationship so when/if they make a choice we wish they wouldn't, they know they can still come to us and we won't freak out. (Or at least we won't freak out externally... our insides may be dancing the macarana.)

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  5. My son will soon be 11. We talk sex regularly. His father (I am divorced) talked with him at length about things some time ago and I reinfornced it and continually do so. I often use real life situations to drive home the point.

    I was one of the statistics - unplanned teenage pregnancy that got sent away to a maternity home to surrender her child for sale to adoption. My son knows how the loss of his sister from our life/my life has affected me, him, our family. I always talk safe sex - as opposed to abstinence - and respect and STDS - and again he is 11.

    I recently told him that if he ever got a girl pregnant we would take care of her/the baby and do the right thing BUT that did not mean he had permission to go out and have sex.

    For me, personally, as a parent, the key is to create an open realistic environment.

    So, as I read your comments, I coulda just said "I agree with Maggie!"

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  6. My parents were always very open with me and my older sibs about sex and related topics and that worked well for us. It just didn't seem like a big deal. I also talked a lot to my older sister and, as the second oldest, I talk a lot to my younger sibs about sex as well. I think "muddling through" just about sums it up, because as you say it really depends on the individual kid and what they're exposed to and what they are comfortable with.

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  7. I was looking for: 5 easy steps to talk about sex with your kids! Thought provoking post and since I have little ones I have time to ponder.

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  8. We have always been very open and honest with our daughter which means that she always had knowledge and terminology that other girls her age didn't...this proved to be both good (she scoffed at her friend who said a girl can get pregnant only after 13 after she kissed a boy) or bad (she took an age appropriate book about knowing your body and sex to school and a parent read the teacher the riot act because my daughter had brought "pornography" to school) so we've struck a deal. I get to englighten her about things but she needs to let other kid's parents give them whatever information they deem appropriate. It always surprises me how late parents start...how long they wait and there have been times that some have been shocked by how early I started. She is 10 and can draw you a diagram of how exactly it all works...but it has all given us an opportunity to discuss what we would like...we would like for her to wait as long as possible (with age comes more maturity and life experience so the longer she waits the more likely she'll make better choices...which may be either to wait or to have safe sex...we hope), but realize it may not work this way so I want her to always feel like she can come to me for information or advice. We talk about the mechanics of sex, the physical, psychological and emotional consequences (both good and bad) and other cultural issues attached to it. I guess that to me it goes beyond sex and knowledge about sex and what she should or shouldn't do...for me it also has a lot to do with raising a daughter who is not ashamed of her parts...herself...sex and shame seem to be tied together in our society (puritan leftover I guess). Yes, I want her to wait, I'd like her to be mature enough to protect herself and all that other stuff but I also want her to not feel shame...not only about the act but about her body. So this means we talk about it and talk about respect and making good decisions/choices..choices that may or may not be different from the ones I made in my teens.

    My husband mentioned that a couple of months ago two of his co-workers (both female) were having an anxious conversation about having "the talk" with their daughters who were between 11 and 13. They were shocked when he told them that our daughter already knew everything and she was 10 (just glad he didn't mention that she already knew by 9!)...sex is such a charged subject and brings up all kinds of emotions because for some people it's very tied to their religious, cultural or social values so I usually stay out of it but I rather err on the side of my daughter knowing too much than not enough so I, in turn, was shocked by how long "they" had waited considering that by 13 many kids have already experimented.

    There is more but I'm too tired to formulate coherent sentences...sleep deprivation is a bitch!LOL

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