The following posting includes selections from Part 2 of psychologist and social sociologist Laurence Steinberg’s article in Psychology Today (Feb. 2011), that urges parents to talk to their teens about sex before they become sexually active. Part 1 offered some explanations why parents are reluctant to speak about sex.
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How can parents overcome their own hesitations and their young adolescent’s resistance? Here are some suggestions:
Don’t postpone discussions of sex until you think the adolescent is involved in a relationship.
Ideally, you should start talking to your child before he or she has become sexually active. Ten- to 12-year-olds are less likely to take the discussions personally and react defensively and more likely to say what is on their minds. It is much less embarrassing to ask and answer a hypothetical, “what if” question than one based on last night’s experience or tomorrow night’s expectations. If you wait until your daughter is 15 or 16 to bring up contraception, for example, she may feel that you are accusing her of being sexually active or invading her privacy.
A younger adolescent won’t take your views as a judgment of his or her maturity. Conversations are less likely to become emotional, and doors to future conversations (and the teenager’s room) will not be slammed shut. Having said this, I must add that it is never too late for you and your adolescent to have the conversation (or several of them). If you’ve put this off, say so. “We should have talked before now; you’ve grown up so fast I just didn’t realize. That’s my fault, but I’d like to start now.”
Don’t try to say everything at once.
Many readers will remember the Big Talk. If you remember anything about the Big Talk, it is probably that you and your parent were both horribly embarrassed. Heart-to-heart talks have their place, but the Big Talk tends to over-dramatize sexuality, making natural developments seem like momentous, mysterious events. The adolescent won’t learn very much from a single lecture anyway.
If you want your child to consider sex a normal — not scary or compulsive or superglorious — part of life, the most natural approach is to weave discussions of sexual topics into everyday conversation. TV shows (both serious shows and sitcoms), magazine articles, the advice columns in newspapers, and even gossip columns provide ample opportunities to discuss sexual behavior and values. A program on teenage pregnancy can set the stage for talking about why (other) teenagers take chances and how much your child knows about conception and contraception.
Don’t overwhelm the young adolescent with information. If your son or daughter asks a question, answer it and ask if there is anything else they would like to know. Your goals should be first to find out what your child knows and correct misinformation and second to let the youngster know that it is okay to talk about sex. The best way to break the ice is to show the adolescent you are interested in his or her views on topics like teenage pregnancy and sexual harassment.
Respect your adolescent’s privacy.
As teenagers move into adolescence, their desire for privacy increases. They don’t want you going through their bureau drawers or email while they are in school, nor do they want you prying into their private thoughts. The rule that sex is private is not for adults only, even if the adolescent’s sex life is all fantasy at this point. If your daughter takes you into her confidence, don’t rush off to tell your husband or your best friend what she said. Let her decide whom she wants or doesn’t want to know about her feelings.
The privacy rule works both ways, of course. If you feel comfortable talking about own experience, fine. (“Would you believe that I thought girls didn’t masturbate until I was in my twenties?”) But if you don’t, say so. You and your adolescent can have a useful, informative conversation about sex without going into intimate details.
At some point, nearly all preteens ask “How old do you have to be to have intercourse?” Don’t assume that your son or daughter is contemplating an affair. Most young teenagers are looking for reasons not to have sex, and welcome their parent’s help in saying no. Even still, it might not be too soon to begin discussing now how to make responsible decisions about sex, and good and bad reasons for having sex. Telling adolescents that they are emotionally immature or that they only think they are in love (if that is the case) is not likely to make much of an impression.
The best approach with preteens is to emphasize the real risks:
> Unprotected sex-at any age, even once — can result in pregnancy.
The only way to prevent pregnancy is to abstain from intercourse or to use effective contraception. But no form of contraception is 100 percent effective. Young adolescents are much less likely to use contraception than are older adolescents.
> Pregnancy at an early age is both physically and psychologically risky.
Very young mothers are more likely to have complicated pregnancies and deliveries than are women in their twenties; their babies are more likely to be underweight, sickly, and slow to develop. Girls who become mothers in their teens are far less likely than other girls to complete high school or go to college. They are also less likely than other girls to marry the father of their baby or, if they do, to stay married. Abortion also entails greater risk when the girl is very young, if only because young teens are reluctant to face the possibility that they are pregnant and delay seeing a physician.
> The risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) among teenagers is high.
STDs are a leading cause of sterility, among other health problems. Having sex now can reduce the chances of having children later in life. The only way to avoid STDs is to abstain from sexual intercourse or to use condoms.
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In short, young adolescents should know that saying no until they are older is important to their health and their future. They should know that having sex doesn’t prove that you are glamorous, attractive, and “with it.” Sex doesn’t prove anything. Saying no at age, for any reason, is okay. You might also want to say that kissing, hugging, and holding hands are good ways of expressing affection that adults enjoy, too. Walking arm in arm on the beach or star-gazing with someone you care for are wonderful at any age. They needn’t be a prelude to sexual intercourse.
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See also Part 1: Why parents are reluctant to speak about sex.