Parental Guidance: Talking to Your Teens About Sex
As I look into the faces of the real teens that come into my office, I frequently see the troubled eyes of those whose lives have been compromised because of the adverse consequences of risky sexual activity. There are many challenges involved in addressing teen sexuality – sex is a very sensitive topic and it is a topic which stirs up strong opinions. Choices that are made without knowledge of potential consequences cannot be considered choices at all. In order to choose, one must know and understand the options. Despite attempts to provide extensive education to teens about sexuality, many adolescents are still woefully ignorant about the reality of STDs in the world today. Accordingly, it is important to consider approaches to dealing with the problem of teen sex.
Peer pressure and influence
The lifestyles and attitudes of friends have a profound impact on teens. An article in a psychology journal notes, “One of the strongest predictors of adolescent behavior is the perceived or actual behavior of friends.”1 Adolescents who have close friends that are sexually involved are much more likely to become sexually involved as well. Teens frequently believe that they will gain respect from their peers and be more accepted if they are following perceived social norms, in this case if they are sexually experienced. Teen males may perceive that they will be viewed as “more of a man” if they talk about or become involved in sexual activity. The fear of being labeled within their peer group if they do, or do not engage in certain activities can influence decisions and choices. Perceptions about the behavior of older teens also may have a significant impact as younger teenagers often “desire to seem older and begin adopting slightly older adolescents’ behavior to seem mature.”
Because of limited life experience, teens are particularly vulnerable to being absorbed by cliques and being heavily influenced by trends and fads. Recognizing this potent force, an article in Postgraduate Medicine makes the blunt recommendation that, as part of a strategy for promoting healthy decision-making in the area of sexual involvement, physicians encourage parents to monitor their children’s friends and to discourage close friendships with peers who exhibit problem behaviors.
Not surprisingly, it has been found that adolescents who are exposed to a lot of sexual content on television are more likely to believe that intercourse outside of a marriage relationship or with multiple partners without protection against pregnancy or disease, is harmless and perhaps even desirable. These findings plainly throw into question the view that teenagers are able to fully separate the media depictions of prolific no-consequence sexual activity and their own sexual practices.
Teens are relentlessly bombarded with sexual messages and imagery in media, entertainment, advertising, and in some types of music. Parents need to be aware of the focus on sex in popular culture and must prepare their teens to deal with the onslaught of sexual imagery. They must find out what is being communicated to their offspring and must become part of the educational process. A vast amount of sometimes contradictory information is being presented to teens. It is vital that parents help their teens to develop critical thinking skills, which will allow teenagers to analyze the information they hear and will hopefully protect them from health endangering choices.
While family intervention is not generally specified as a definitive approach for reducing STDs, the apparent influence that parents can have on adolescent sexual behaviors suggests that the most efficient way to decrease risky activities may be to encourage parents to become fully involved in the sexuality education of their offspring. While many may feel like bystanders in their teenagers’ lives, parents must take responsibility for playing a role in the promotion of healthy lifestyles. They need to promote ongoing dialogue with their teens about relationships and sexuality. Through both teaching and active monitoring of social and other activities, they need to protect their offspring from counterproductive influences and potential abuse. And, in addition, parents need to give overt guidance regarding appropriate and safe dating relationships.
Adolescents who have a close relationship with their parents tend to be responsive to their parents’ attitudes and advice about important issues including sexuality. Despite the many reasons which may cause a parent to feel uncomfortable with this topic, it is absolutely crucial that communication begins in the pre-teen years with general discussions of appropriate relationships and life goals, and that these conversations later progress to all aspects of sexuality, including STDs. Open communication will also facilitate a parent’s ability to monitor the information that their teen is hearing in the media or in educational and social settings. Remember that any discomfort experienced by parents or teens is short term; the knowledge and benefits accrued are long term.
Some factors that protect against early sexual activity
- Discussion of issues related to sexuality between parents and children
- Parental monitoring of dating
- Balance of committed love and moderately strict discipline in the home
- Good relationship between the parents
- Both parents actively and emotionally involved with teen
- Good performance and motivation at school
- Post-secondary educational plans
- Regular religious participation
- High self-esteem
- Parental monitoring of media
- Close friends who avoid high-risk behaviors and who are not sexually involved
- Consistent message from educators to postpone sexual activity
By talking openly to teenagers about different aspects of relationships, by discussing the potential long-term implication of early sexual involvement, and by teaching adolescents to think critically about what they see and hear, parents can empower their teens to deal with challenges and adverse influences.
The decisions made by teens regarding sexual behavior will have a significant impact on the rest of their lives. Parents need to encourage adolescents to consider questions such as the following:
- Will the choices I am making today allow me to live a healthy life in the future?
- Will these choices allow me to become the person I want to be?
- Will my current lifestyle deter me from reaching my goals and dreams?
Adapted from “Teen Sex: Reality Check” by Dr. Stephen Genuis and Shelagh K. Genuis. Used with permission.
1 Dolcini MM, Adler NE. Perceived competencies, peer group affiliation, and risk behavior among early adolescents. Health Psychol 1994; 13:496-506.
2 Kinsman SB, Romer D, et al. Early sexual initiation: the role of peer norms. Pediatrics 1998; 102:1185-1192.