Parents often ask me for advice regarding sex and reproductive health. Many times this involves speaking with me separately from their teen and informing me they found a condom in a pocket or their teen has been in a long term relationship and they think they may be sexually active. Most parents are worried about pregnancy, some are concerned about sexually transmitted infections. For all, I also bring up some topics that aren’t always as obvious, but are just as important. In this post, we’ll discuss important conversations to have with teens about sex and relationships in addition preventing pregnancy and STD’s.
With the #metoo movement that is sweeping social media and the convictions of sexual assault by prominent men in Hollywood, the medical community, and other areas, people who have experienced sexual harassment and assault are beginning to have a voice. Unwanted sexual contact by anyone (regardless of gender) is criminal. Unfortunately, our culture is full of examples where (mainly) female bodies are objectified as sexual objects in movies, commercials, music lyrics, and music videos. The message this sends to youth (and adults) is that the body of whomever we’re attracted to is there for our pleasure. It also sends a message that those who experience harassment and/or assault are at fault or should keep quiet. This needs to change!
I counsel all teens on the importance of consent and mutual respect in any relationship in addition to pregnancy and STD prevention. As more and more parents are pulling me aside to ask for advice, I’m adjusting my counseling to them as well.
Here are some of the things to consider about relationships and intimacy that I share with parents:
- Model healthy relationships. Open communication, mutual respect, listening and empathy are all signs of a healthy relationship. Model the behavior you’d like to see in your teens. Your teens are watching you; they are taking your lead on how they behave in friendships and romantic relationships.
- Consent is key. Always ask a partner if they are comfortable. Even if they don’t stay ‘no’ or ‘stop’ pay attention to body language. If they hesitate (during intimate contact), stop what you’re doing. Many teens tell me they don’t feel like they can speak up if they don’t feel comfortable. They worry about disappointing a partner or losing their partner’s affection. They may already be undressed and in the middle of an act, don’t want to go on but feel obligated. This leads to guilt and shame. Before engaging in sexual contact, make sure everyone involved wants to proceed.
- Encourage your teen to speak up if they see inappropriate behavior. If locker room/classroom/instant message, etc talk turns disrespectful, stop participating in the conversation or if they feel safe, speak up to say the talk is not respectful or appropriate. Ask your teen what they’d do in different situations. For example, a friend pinched a buttock cheek of someone walking by or tried to kiss someone who wasn’t interested at a party. Have a discussion about sexual harassment and what it can look like.
- Abstinence is ok. Yes sex feels good, is normal, and a natural act. It goes hand in hand with life! (How else are babies traditionally made?). But abstinence is the only 100% way to avoid STDs, pregnancy, and emotions that go along with sexual acts. Delaying sexual debut is associated with fewer STDs, increased condom use, and less substance use during sex. Did you know the percentage of high school students who have ever had sex is decreasing? It dropped from 54.1% in 1991 down to 41.2% in 2015. At the same time, condom use among high school students has increased (from 46.2% in 1991 to 56.9% in 2015). Results from the National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, CDC.
- Don’t forget about the emotions. Teen brains are still developing. They are much more likely than adults to be influenced by what feels good. Developmentally, they are also more likely to have very intense romantic feelings (recall your first crush!). While an adult may be able to have a casual intimate encounter, teens may develop strong emotional ties to partners or very strong and intense feelings of rejection when relationships end. Teens also tend to have serial monogamy instead of overlapping romantic relationships. Understanding the differences can help you support your teen when they are in a relationship or going through a break up.
- Sex and intimacy should feel pleasurable. Intimate contact should feel good, if it is forced, coerced, or painful that is a problem.
- Masturbation is normal. Parents and teens often ask me in a whisper if they should be worried about masturbation. This is a normal part of human development. As long is this is done in private, without sexting, video, or public it is not worrisome. It will not lead to damage or challenges with fertility.