What your teenager needs to know.
- A good sex education teaches the difference between sex and sexuality.
- It also teaches respect for oneself and others.
- Teens need to know the risks of unprotected sex and how to make responsible, life-affirming choices.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe vs. Wade decision, making abortion difficult or impossible to get in many states, preventing unplanned, unwanted pregnancies in all age groups has become more important than ever. Teenagers, especially, need to be more aware of the risks of unprotected sex and other important facts in order to make responsible choices. Ideally, the best people to educate them are their loving parents.
This may not be easy.
Loving concern may make you feel like saying, “Don’t! Just don’t!”
But that’s not enough these days. Like it or not, components of sex education are all around us—some helpful, some not. Teens are influenced by what they see in movies and on television and what they hear from friends and also what their parents don’t say as much as what they do say.
In a recent therapy session, a young adult woman who had two unplanned pregnancies before she was 18 told me, “I wish my mom had been able to tell me the correct facts and how to make a healthy decision about when and whether to have sex. She probably was embarrassed or thought I wouldn’t listen. But the truth is, It could have made such a difference.”
How can you make a difference to your own adolescent?
By taking a deep breath and exploring all aspects of sexuality with him, her, or them. This doesn’t mean an excruciating one-time big talk, but a series of discussions, sometimes in reaction to something you’ve both seen in a movie or read in a newspaper or online, sometimes in answer to a question or a sharing of what you think about a topic, or sometimes as a means of learning something together.
A good sex education includes the following:
- Knowing that sexuality is a part of who you are and sex is something you do. One’s sexuality can include feelings and fantasies. It can include sexual orientation or the many variations of gender identity. Sexual activity is only one aspect of sexuality. Part of growing into a confident, loving person is being comfortable with one’s own sexuality.
- Having respect for oneself and for others. This includes the importance of respecting another’s feelings and values while standing up for your own. It may not be enough for a parent to say, “I feel (or our faith says) that premarital sex is wrong and sinful.” It’s important to share your feelings. But it’s also important to point out that waiting to have sex can be a self-affirming, positive choice. Having the wisdom to wait until one has reached a more mature, more settled stage of life before being in a sexual relationship with another can be truly life-enhancing. In the meantime, teaching young people to respect differences in values and opinions while standing up for their own—without bullying, shaming, or pressuring another—is vital. This is especially important in an age where many people in the LGBTQ community are too often misunderstood or even feared. While some young people are much more open to accepting or celebrating diversity in sexual orientation or gender identification, others fear what they don’t understand. Trying to understand and accept differences in others is an important part of learning to live in this changing world.
- Knowing the risks of having unprotected sex and how to protect oneself. It’s important to emphasize that unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases can happen to anyone, including those who have sex for the first time or only occasionally, and that part of being mature enough to even think of having sex is being aware of those possibilities and protecting oneself. This means using a reliable contraceptive as well as taking time to know a partner well and having honest discussions about risk factors and preventive measures. Some parents worry that talking about birth control might encourage a teen to have sex before the young person is emotionally ready. But this is rarely the case. Having correct information can help a teen to make responsible, life-affirming choices.
- Knowing how to make these responsible, life-affirming choices. Educating your child about this process includes exploring reasons why saying “no” right now can make sense. Some good reasons to wait, besides personal values and religious beliefs, might include: not feeling ready and/or feeling pressured by another; being in love for the first time or being too embarrassed to discuss or use birth control; or if you’re tempted to have sex for non-sexual reasons—like popularity. It’s important to emphasize to your teenagers that sex at the right time and with the right person can be wonderful, but that it cannot make you genuinely popular or ensure a lasting love relationship, increase your self-esteem, or decrease your loneliness.
- Understanding that sex and intimacy are not invariably the same. It’s important for young people to know that sex does not automatically lead to intimacy. Intimacy means that you feel safe in a relationship, safe enough to be yourself and to be vulnerable with another person. It can mean being comfortable with silence as well as sharing who you really are with another. It can mean finding joy together in ordinary as well as extraordinary moments. Building an intimate friendship—which may or may not ever ultimately lead to a sexual relationship—takes time and nurturing. And helping your teen to see the value of taking time to learn how to be a loving, giving friend and/or partner is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.