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Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

It's a Whole New World: Relationships and Sex in the 21st Century

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Information about Teen Sexual Behavior Let me first say, that although we were all teenagers once, our experience was so different than what our teens are experiencing today, that we cannot assume to know anything – and applying the way our parents parented us, or our experiences – is a wasted effort.

Today’s teens have access to more information about relationships and sex, and at younger ages, than we could ever have imagined. They are also better prepared to handle that level of information then we would have been. The world has changed – the Internet has brought the world to our kids before we are ready!

What kids are the most in need of – is us. Research study after research study documents the fact that teens nationwide are suffering from a lack of honest communication from their parents and other pivotal adults around them… They do not have the information they need about their bodies, and their hearts.

I know that is true because at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation we get more than 350 anonymous questions a month submitted on the We're Talking Teen Health web site – most are related to sexuality and relationships.

The good news is that research shows talking to kids about sexuality does not make them have sex earlier! In fact, it protects them from situations in which “sex just happens” and the consequences that follow, including sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests:
  • youth are having less intercourse;
  • using more contraception, and
  • that there was 30% less teen pregnancy between 1994 and 2004.
Now the bad news!
  • Nationally, 63% of high school students have had sexual intercourse before they graduate from high school;
  • The average age of first sexual intercourse, and first oral sex, is 15;
  • 70% of teens say their first sexual experience was not planned;
  • 80% of teen sex happens at home; and
  • Only 60% of youth who are sexually active used a condom the last time they had sex.
What can we do?
Teens need to know that 66% of teens and 81% of 12 – 14 year olds regret their first sexual experience and adults need to make sure that teens have the knowledge and strength to “make good decisions.”

Parents being “in denial” will not help and it will undermine our relationships and make them superficial. Having an open relationship means that your kids tell you things! Sifting through their emails or reading a diary or blog is a major invasion of privacy and it will ruin your relationship. Do not do it!

Parents need to talk honestly with their children about sexual rights, pleasure, and risk. All teens need to know the danger signs of abusive relationships and that feeling all “tingly and floaty” does not mean they are in love – it means they are sexually excited.

Teens need to know that it feels good to be excited, but that sexuality should be protected, consensual and planned with someone they love or, it is not going to feel great, and there are life threatening consequences.

Take Home Messages From the Teens
Preparing for a recent talk I asked several teens what they hoped their parents would get from my talk, and these are some of the things they said:
FIRST, “Being open matters. The people I know who can tell their parents anything are much safer, and much smarter, than those whose parents are disapproving or just awkward.”

SECOND, “Please respect our relationships – we know we are not likely to marry our teen sweetheart, but what we are experiencing in our relationships is very real to us.” And I would like to add – the first time teens experience things – whether it is love or sex, - is likely to be the most intense – and one they remember forever – help them savor it – do not blow it off.

Initiating Good Communication
There are rules for good communication with your child on any subject. For example, it’s best to start early. Waiting until your child is 12 years old to discuss important issues is not a good idea. Kids are hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues, such as alcohol, drugs and peer pressure, at increasingly younger ages. There is a lot to discuss with your child about these complex topics, and the lessons should be gradual. Also, it’s important to tailor communication to the age of the child and add more information as your child grows. If you start communicating about everything when your child is 10, rather than beginning the conversations when he or she is younger, it may feel very intrusive to your child.

Initiate Conversations

Begin to have conversations with your child about a variety of topics. While some kids will ask you questions, others need you to start the conversation. This does not mean that you should start a conversation out of the blue; it means be aware of naturally occurring moments. For example, when something on TV or the radio mentions kissing, take the opportunity to ask your child what he or she knows about the topic, or if he or she has any questions. Listening to what the kids talk about in the car may provide other opportunities. Jump right in when you can.

Create an Open Environment

Children are constantly bombarded with images and messages through television, radio and the Internet. At no other time in history have children been exposed to so much information, and they need to know they can ask you anything. When they do ask you, ask what they really want to know, and answer as clearly and honestly as you can. Admit if you do not know something, and look for the answer together, or tell your child that you will find out the answer and let them know.

Communicate Your Own Values
Share your values with your children. Do not simply assume that they understand your family’s values just because they live in the same house. Clearly communicate what you believe in and explain why you have the values you do and why you encourage them to share your values.

Listen to Your Child
If you really listen, your children will feel more comfortable talking to you and coming to you with questions. They will know that their opinions and concerns are important because they have your undivided attention, and that you are committed to understanding their feelings and providing information.

Try to Be Honest

Whatever your children's age, they deserve honest answers; it strengthens their ability to trust. If you do not give them complete answers, they might make them up, which may be more frightening than the truth. Remember, the most difficult questions also give you a chance to communicate your values.

Be Patient
Let your child ask the whole question, and ask for the story that explains why he or she wants to know. This will help you give the correct answer without overwhelming them with too much information. In most cases, kids are not asking for the complex answer you might be tempted to give.

Talk About it Again and Again

If your child asks the same question several times, maybe over several days or weeks, be tolerant and give the answer, over and over again. Chances are good that your child is taking in some of the answer, processing it and then coming back for more information when they are ready. Persistence is a valuable character trait.

Ask for Feedback
Let a little time pass after an important conversation and then ask your child to tell you what he or she remembers from the conversation. Also ask what he or she understood, or thought you were saying. Try asking your child what you said -- the answer may surprise you. More importantly, it gives you an opportunity to repeat what you believe.

Resources
Web Sites

Talking with Kids About Tough Issues is a national campaign by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation with tips, resources, and facts about sex, HIV & AIDS, violence and drugs.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy seeks to improve the well-being of children, youth, and families by reducing teen pregnancy. The Campaign's goal is to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by one-third between 1996 and 2005.

Planned Parenthood is the world's largest and oldest voluntary family planning organization. Planned Parenthood is dedicated to the principles that every individual has a fundamental right to decide when or whether to have a child, and that every child should be wanted and loved.

Books
PAMF has a resource list on the preteen site.

Photo credit: sara lechner

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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