Beyond the Big TalkEvery Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens from Middle School to High School and Beyond
Newmarket PressCopyright © 2002 Debra W. Haffner
All right reserved.ISBN: 1557045178
My daughter Alyssa is entering her sophomore year athigh school this fall. I am excited for her as she enters this newphase of adolescence. I am awed as I watch her develop into ayoung woman. I find myself being caught off guard sometimeswhen she emerges from upstairs looking very much like a beautifulwoman and not at all like our little girl.
And, like most parents of teens, I am more than a littlescared. Will she do well in high school? Will she continue tomake friends easily? What will it be like when she falls in lovefor the first time, and what will it be like when someone breaksher heart? And are we really prepared to deal with her developingsexuality?
It's not easy being a parent of a teenager today. To be candid,I have found parenting an adolescent to be a humblingexperience.
I had always thought I would be a terrific parent of an adolescentchild. After all, I have worked with teens for more thantwo decades. The teenagers in my classes and groups love me. Ilove their energy, their commitment, and their willingness tochallenge adults.
I pride myself on being an adult who understands teens. Iknow the somewhat predictable stages of adolescent development.I have had years of experience helping teens deal withpeer pressure ... sexual feelings ... the need to begin to be independentfrom their parents.
And then my daughter Alyssa entered middle school, andtheory met practice. She summed it up one day when she was12, at the end of yet another disagreement. She looked at mederisively and said, "And you're supposed to be an expert in myage group!"
Now, I am an expert in her age group. I have worked withadolescents for more than twenty-five years. I have counseledteens at clinics, and I have offered workshops and classes atschools, community agencies, and my church. I have developedprograms and materials for teens. I even created and coordinatedthe activities of the National Commission onAdolescent Sexual Health.
It is true that these experiences will help me be a betterparent to Alyssa and our son Gregory as they go through theirteen years. It does help to know the developmental stages thatyour child is likely to go through. It helps to think through thevalues that you want to communicate about sexuality to yourteenagers. It helps to have some ideas about how to get andkeep a discussion going with a noncommunicative 15 year old.
But parenting an adolescent is challenging, even for theexperts. Each year at the Society for Adolescent Medicineannual meeting, a group of adolescent medicine doctors, psychologists,and nurses meet to discuss what it is like to dealwith their own adolescent children. They are experts in otherpeople's teen children; it is their own who are tough to dealwith. And helping your child develop a sense of his or her sexualidentity is one of the most challenging parts of parenting.
I can hear some of my readers taking a deep breath here.What sexual identity? Who said anything about wanting mychild to develop a sexual identity? And what is the author reallytalking about?
Psychologists tell us that forming a sexual identity is a keydevelopmental task of adolescence. What do they mean? First,during adolescence, children mature biologically into adults,developing the capacity to bear children themselves. Second, itis during these years that they experience their first adultlikeerotic feelings, and almost all teens will begin to experimentwith some sexual behaviors, alone and/or with a partner. Third,they develop a stronger sense of who they are as a man or awoman (this is known as gender identity) and a stronger senseof their own sexual orientation (whether they are homosexual,heterosexual, or bisexual).
All of these changes can be difficult for parents. It is hardto see your "baby" starting to become a sexual person. It is morethan a little daunting to realize that your 15-year-old daughteror son has the body of a sexually mature adult. It even canmake you feel jealous as you watch your teen's sexuality blossomand contrast it with your own midlife sexual changes.
It can also be scary. The facts about adolescent sexualbehavior today can be frightening. Indeed, for a parent of ateenager, they can be downright terrifying.
Consider these facts:
Half of teens in high schools have had sexual intercourse.
The average teenage girl has her first experience with sexual intercourse in her senior year of high school; the average teenage boy begins having intercourse during his junior year.
More than four in ten teenage women will be pregnant by their twentieth birthday.
More than one in four teens who have sexual intercourse will become infected with a sexually transmitted disease during their teen years.
The fastest growing group of people who are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are young people aged 15 to 24.
These facts do not just happen to other people's children.These are not just statistics; each number represents a real liveteen and his or her family faced with these difficult life-changingissues. More than nine in ten American teenagers experimentwith sexual behaviors. In other words, unless you have ateenage child who is totally asocial, the chances are that whilethey are in high school they will be exploring their sexualitywith another person. Remember that sexuality is not the samething as sexual intercourse: hand holding and kissing can beintense sexual behaviors for a 15 year old. (Even those asocialteens are probably exploring their sexuality on their ownthrough masturbation, books, magazines, and the Internet.)Teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases affectteens of all races, all socioeconomic groups, urban teens, ruralteens, and teens who live in every state in the country.
Okay, so stop and take a deep breath. When I am speakingwith groups of parents of adolescents and share these statisticswith them, their faces often become pale. I have even noticedsome parents who put their heads in their hands! Parents areunderstandably shaken when they hear these facts for the firsttime. Please take another deep breath.
Because I want you to know that this book is about the goodnews. What if I told you that your actions and your involvementin your teen's life could make a difference? I promise youthat if you follow the advice in this book, you can increase thechances that your teenager will not become involved in sexualbehaviors that they are not ready to handle. Of course, I cannotpromise you that this will work for all teens or that yourchild will not have sexual intercourse during their teenageyears. If you have made it as far in parenting to having an adolescent,you know that not every strategy works for all childrenand that some children are more difficult to raise than othersare. As you will see throughout this book, I believe in obtainingoutside counseling and assistance for troubled teens.
But, for the majority of teenagers, good parenting can makethe difference. In a study of more than twelve thousandteenagers from around the country, researchers at the Universityof North Carolina and the University of Minnesota found thatparental guidance matters. When teens feel connected to theirparents, the chances that they will be involved in risk behaviors,from drinking to drugs to violence to unprotected sexualintercourse, all go down. Physically being with your children atkey times of the daywhen they wake up, after school, at dinner,and at bedtimemakes a difference, but not as big a differenceas whether your teenage children feel you love themand care for them. They discovered that in homes where parentshave given their teen children clear messages that indicatethat they disapprove of teens having intercourse, these teensare more likely to delay becoming involved in sexual intercourse.Other studies have indicated that in homes where parentsand teens talk about sexuality, the teen is more likely to waitto have intercourse and more likely to use contraception andcondoms when he or she does become sexually experienced.
Sexually Healthy Families
In my book From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to RaisingSexually Healthy Children, I introduced the idea of sexuallyhealthy families. Sexually healthy families raise sexuallyhealthy children and adolescents who grow up to become sexuallyhealthy adults.
Now, before you get upset, let me explain that "sexuality"is different than sex or sexual behaviors. I am not talking aboutsexual behaviors when I talk about sexually healthy families.Sexuality is about who we are as men and women, and notabout what we do with a part of our bodies. Sexuality encompassesan individual's sexual knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values,and behaviors. Your sexuality is not defined just by yourbody and your feelings. It is also shaped by your cultural background,your family history, your education, your experiences,and your religion. We are sexual beings from birth to death.
So what do I mean when I talk about a sexually healthyadolescent? A sexually healthy adolescent is not defined by thebehaviors he or she abstains from or the behaviors he or sheengages in. There are teen virgins who are not sexually healthyand sexually experienced teens who may be. And vice versa.Our sexuality is about much :more than our reproductive organsor what we do with our genitals. According to the NationalCommission on Adolescent Sexual Health, sexually healthyadolescents appreciate their bodies, take responsibility for theirown behaviors, communicate effectively within their families,communicate effectively with both genders in appropriate andrespectful ways, and express love and intimacy in a mannerthat is appropriate for their age.
Sexually healthy adolescents do not just happen. Theyhave parents who consider educating their teens about sexualityan important responsibility, and these parents create homeswhere sexuality is discussed naturally and easily. Sexuallyhealthy teenagers know that they can always come to their parentsfor assistance and that they are truly loved.
And many of us parents let our teens down in this importantarea. In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation,almost four in ten parents said that they had not talked to theirteenage children about relationship issues and about becomingsexuality active. Fewer than half had talked to their childrenabout how to prevent pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseasesif they did become sexually active. (But these parentswere doing better than their parents had done: Fewer than twoin ten remembered talking with their own parents about sexuallytransmitted diseases or contraception.)
Recently, my daughter Alyssa was on a panel at a retreatwith other teenagers talking about sexuality and teens. At theend of it, she said to me, "Mom, I realize I'm being raised reallydifferently than most kids." When I asked her what thatmeant, she said, "Most kids have never talked to their parentsabout sexuality; all their parents did was give them a bookwhen they turned 12." In fact, this "book syndrome" seems tobe quite common. Many parents have told me that they boughttheir child a book on sexuality or puberty, left it in the preteen'sroom, and never discussed it again.
Try to take this quiz as honestly as possible:
Do you respect your teenager?
Do you trust your teenager?
Are you knowledgeable about sexuality?
Do you model sexually healthy attitudes in your own primary intimate relationship?
Do you talk with your teens regularly about sexuality issues?
Do you really try to understand your adolescent's point of view?
Do you set and maintain limits for dating and other activities outside of school?
Are you actively involved in your teen's life?
Do you ask questions about his or her friends and romantic partners?
Do you provide a supportive and safe environment for your children?
Do you offer to assist your teens in finding reproductive health care?
How many "yes's" can you honestly give yourself? Are thereareas that you might want to improve? A "yes" answer tells youthat you have one of the characteristics of a sexually healthyparent as defined by the National Commission on AdolescentSexual Health. In the coming chapters, I will present ideas andscenarios that may be helpful as you parent your adolescent.
There are many different types of families today, and Ibelieve that all types can be sexually healthy for children andteens. Many of you may be your child's biological parents, butmany of you may be grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents,or adoptive parents. In this book, I have tried to be inclusiveof all kinds of parenting arrangements. There are specialissues that affect single parents, parents who are divorced, andparents who are gay and lesbian, and I will include some specialsections in coming chapters about these issues. For themost part though, the advice applies to all types of families andparents who want help on how to raise teens who affirm theirsexuality in responsible and healthy ways.
We all know teenagers who come from good homes withgood parents who still get in trouble in school, withdrinking and driving, and with sex. We also know teenagerswho apparently succeed despite their troubled family backgroundsor situations.
Americans are surprisingly down on teenagers. In a studyby the nonprofit group Public Agenda, most Americans saidthey are disappointed with "kids these days," and almost three-quartersused negative words to describe the average teenager,such as rude, irresponsible, and wild. Only one in six used positivewords to describe teenagers. Of course, there is nothingnew in youth upsetting their eiders. More than two thousandyears ago, Socrates described youth this way: "They are alsomannerless and fail to rise when their elders enter the room.They chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table,cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers."
Fortunately, most teenagers feel pretty good about themselves.Almost three-quarters of teens say, "I can always trustmy parents to be there for me when I need them." Two-thirdssay, "Faith in God is an important part of my life," and almosttwo-thirds say, "I can always trust my friends to be there for mewhen I need them." Half say, "I am usually happy." I think thata big part of our job as parents is to help strengthen our teensand help them flourish.
There has been a lot of research in the past several yearsabout what psychologists call vulnerability and resilience. Inother words, what makes "good kids" good? What makes somekids flourish? What makes some kids more likely to be involvedwith violence, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy? Andhow can parents help?
Healthy teens are said to have four C's: Competence,Connection, Character, and Confidence. Competence has todo with the teen's ability to do well at school, socially, and atwork. Connection is about whether the teen has caring relationshipswith peers, parents, family, and other adults in thecommunity. Character refers to qualities such as honesty, communityservice, responsible decision making, and integrity.Confidence is when a young person has hope, self-esteem, andgoals for his or her future.
Families and schools are probably the biggest influence onhow young people will manage their adolescence. An organizationcalled the Search Institute in Minnesota has actually identifiedforty characteristics of communities and families thathelp young people to grow up to be healthy, caring, and responsible.
Young people are more likely to do well if they come fromfamilies that provide high levels of support and love, and wherethe teens communicate and seek advice and counsel from theirparents. The problem is that most parents fail their children inthis important area. Too many parents develop what I'm goingto call the "Missing Parent Syndrome" when their childrenbecome adolescents. I recently met a 13-year-old girl with amother who sends her e-mails twice a day from her home officewith a list of things to do, instead of sitting down and talkingwith her. Part of the "Missing Parent Syndrome" happensbecause today's dual-career couple or single parents are workingmany more hours. Compared with 1960, children in the U.S.have lost, on average, ten to twelve hours per week of parentaltime. According to the Institute of Medicine, as much as 40percent of young adolescents' time is unstructured, unsupervised,and unproductive.
But it is not just a problem of having less physical timetogether. Many parents of teens begin to remove themselvesfrom their children's lives. They stop setting limits for theirteenage child's behavior. They stop asking questions aboutwhere their teen children are going after school or on theweekends. They tell me, "I've tried everything and I don'tknow what to do. I give up."
They leave their teenagers alone in the house for long periodsof time without supervision, or even go away on the weekendsand leave their teens in charge of the house. They feelthat their teens are too old to arrange for supervision or campor to take with them on vacation. Do you remember the movieRisky Business? The Tom Cruise character has a huge partywhen his parents leave him alone for the weekend and evenbecomes involved with a prostitute. Well, this doesn't just happenin the movies. In our town, the police tell me that theybreak up teen parties each year where there are no parents athome. In fact, one group of teens told me that every party theygo to is broken up by police!
The first and primary lesson of this book is stay involved.One of the saddest things I ever read was an interview with thedad of one of the teen boys who murdered the other childrenat Columbine High School. The father was reported to say,"But I thought I had finished parenting."
You are not finished. In fact, raising an adolescent is one ofthe most important and challenging parts of parenting. Youhave probably heard the adage, "Little children, little problems.Big children, big problems." Helping your teen successfullynavigate his or her sexuality is one of the biggest challengesof raising an adolescent. According to the Institute ofMedicine, if parents provide guidance, discipline, and closesupervision, their teen children are less likely to engage inintercourse, drugs, and antisocial behaviors.
But it is more than parents that determine which teens dowell. "Good kids" also have caring neighbors and a caring,encouraging school environment. The Search Institute foundthat "good kids" have at least three other adults in their livesbesides their parents who care about them. One study foundthat teens who said they have adult mentors were less likely tohave intercourse. Stop and think for a moment: How many significantadults are in your teen's life? If your teen felt he couldn'tcome to you with a problem, are there are other adults hecould go to comfortably? Does your daughter have other adultsin her life that she trusts and with whom she relates well?