Parents can help children and adolescents have physically healthy and emotionally satisfying relationships.
In a recent survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control more than 50% of students in grades 9 through 12 reported having had sexual intercourse. Yet, only 54% of those who were sexually active used condoms, leaving them vulnerable to pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. These statistics highlight the need for parents to help their children navigate the treacherous waters of teenage sexuality.
Ideally, parents should begin answering questions about sex as they arise in a manner appropriate for the child's age. Preschoolers are often curious about the differences in anatomy between boys and girls or how babies come out of a mother's body. If parents enable children to ask questions about their bodies, then children accumulate knowledge at a comfortable pace. This sets the stage for future discussions concerning the more intimate physical and emotional details of sexual relations.
Even with the best foundation in communication, discussing sex can be difficult for both teens and parents. Young teens, whose bodies and relationships with peers are rapidly changing, may feel too embarrassed to speak about what is happening to them. Some parents feel anxious using anatomical language or discussing sex in general. Parents who are honest about their own discomfort put both themselves and their children at ease, making it less awkward to talk about sensitive issues. The sexualized images and messages commonly portrayed in movies, television shows, books, magazines and songs can also help parents facilitate conversations about sexuality.
Generally, it is easier for children to have conversations about sex with a parent of the same gender. Single parents with a child of opposite gender need to gauge their child's comfort level. When it is clear that a teen needs to speak with someone of the same gender, a single parent can ask a close relative or friend to step in. To avoid confusing teens, parents and their substitutes need to discuss their perspectives about sexuality in advance and agree on the message to be communicated.
By the time most children enter their early teens, they understand how one becomes pregnant but are less certain about how to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Some parents worry that discussing contraception or the use of condoms, to protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases will condone sexual behavior and encourage their teens to become sexually active. The level of sexual activity teens engage in, however, is influenced by a complicated mix of curiosity, maturity, self-esteem, peer pressure and a level of alcohol and drug use.
In fact, talking about contraception can be a golden opportunity for parents to learn what their teens think about sex and the role it plays in their lives. This information is especially important for parents who want their teens to abstain from sex. Discussions about abstinence will be more meaningful when parents try to understand how their children perceive themselves, if they feel pressured by their peers to have sex, and if they can be assertive enough to say no.
Talking about contraception is also a chance for parents to highlight the responsibility that accompanies sexual activity, as well as distinguish between the physical act of sex and its accompanying emotional components. Discussing the mechanics of sex is easy compared to clarifying the feelings that are involved. Teens need to be aware that most satisfying relationships are based on trust, mutual respect and genuine intimacy. Moreover, such relationships are not easily achieved and require time to develop. One of the most powerful teaching tools parents have is their own relationship. Children will learn to be tender, compassionate and respectful of their partners when they see their parents model these behaviors.
Mood changes, depression, alcohol, or other drug use, and pregnancy, are some of the signals that a teen may need help. Parents can talk to their pediatrician or seek a referral to a trained professional when they have questions or need further guidance.
About the Author
Stephen R. Gushin, M.D. is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.
References and Related Books
A Parent's Handbook: How to Talk to Your Children About Developing Healthy Relationships
Liz Claiborne Inc. 1999 Available by calling 800-449-STOP.
1212 Broadway, Suite 530, Oakland, CA 94612, tel: 800-CHILD-44, http://www.talkingwithkids.org
Date Reviewed: March 29, 2007