When talking about sexuality and young people in our culture, we are much more comfortable discussing disasters (teen pregnancy, for example), disease (HIV and other STIs), and dysfunction (coercive sex, etc.).
It’s much easier for us to talk about what we DON’T want for our kids’ sex lives than about what we DO want.
In my work with parents, we ultimately get to the hope that kids will appreciate their own bodies, express love and intimacy in appropriate ways, enjoy sexual feelings without necessarily acting on them , practice health prevention, such as regular checkups and breast or testicular self-exams and when they are mature enough to act on their feelings, will talk with a partner about sexual activity before it occurs, including sexual limits (theirs and their partner’s), contraceptive and condom use, and the meaning of the relationship and of relationships, in general.
Too often, when we talk with young people, we talk about the dangers of sexual behavior, and we leave out the positive feelings.
Every adolescent who has had a “crush” knows the pleasurable feelings that come with having an intense attraction to someone.
Young people need to hear from us, the caring adults in their lives, about the pleasure as well as the responsibility of sexuality.
Puberty is an exciting time that challenges both us and our children to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional changes that happen between the ages of about 10 and 14.
Girls will begin breast development and will most likely have their first menstrual period.
They may experience physical discomfort from the cramps that accompany their periods and emotional discomfort as their developing breasts attract some attention from their peers.
Mothers can reassure their daughters by talking about their experiences at the same age and can broaden the discussion to talk about the positive and pleasurable aspects of maturing. Part of the conversation can be about the sexual feelings that often come around this age, and how these feelings can be managed.
Boys will usually experience their first wet dreams during puberty. And, sometimes, sexual thoughts or feelings accompany them.
Boys need to be reassured that wet dreams are normal, as are the thoughts that accompany them. Conversations with boys and girls about the difference between fantasy and reality can flow naturally from this discussion, with our providing anticipatory guidance about what might happen in real life when the child begins dating.
Our discussions can include how to make decisions about sexual behavior based on open and honest communication.
We should affirm our kids’ feelings, with clarity about our family’s values about sexuality and relationships.
We can also talk about the possibility that strong feelings can be managed in appropriate ways.
We need to remember that young people explore their sexuality as part of a process of achieving sexual maturity and that adolescents are capable of expressing their sexuality in healthy, responsible ways.
Teenagers benefit from conversations that identify the differences between love and lust and the self-esteem that comes from responsibly managing these feelings.
Part of this conversation is about the positive feeling of intimacy that people can have without sexual intercourse.
This dynamic is developmentally appropriate, and we, as parents, should appreciate the fact that our teens will seem to be paying much more attention to their peers than to us.
Nonetheless, we are critically important throughout this process, and we need to continue to be involved in our youngsters’ lives.
If our parent-child conversations continue to balance messages about responsibility, healthy decision making, and values with messages about the positive and pleasurable aspects of developing relationships, we can continue to have close and caring relationships with our teens—relationships that will support our young people’s healthy sexual development.
The author is the Vice President for Education, Planned Parenthood Federation of America