This Too Shall Pass
You don't get it. You pride yourself on the relative ease with which you've discussed sexual issues with your child in the past: answering questions honestly; initiating conversation; creating an environment in which sexuality is viewed as a special and positive aspect of ourselves.
What happened? Suddenly, your 6th grader has decided the topic is off limits. S/he's appalled (embarrassed, disgusted, nervous ... take your pick...) whenever the subject comes up. That's just what you've been trying to prevent... why you've worked so hard to communicate. And it's come to this? So you wonder, "What did I do wrong?"
Nothing. You have a typical 6th grader. As 6th graders go, sex is gross, embarrassing, stupid, funny, or all of the above. B.P. (Before Puberty), things were different: sexuality was neat to talk about with the folks; the issues were matter of fact, non-threatening, and your child was an interested bystander.
D.P. (During Puberty), sexuality becomes terribly personal! Bodies blossom; fantasies and strange new urges arise; simmering concerns about what's normal result in considerable uneasiness; many 6th graders know of someone - a friend or classmate - who is actually experimenting with sexual activity. (Yes! Unfortunately, some children become involved very early!) Suddenly, sexuality is hitting too close to home, it's scary...and "I'd rather not talk about it!"
Such is a typical 11-year-old's response to the topic of sex. It's now especially important that parents muster patience, understanding, and support in order to teach children what they need to know.
- Continue broaching the subject - keep it light, don't push. Settle for a monologue if need be...at least it's putting out your message.
- Avoid preaching. As sex becomes more of a real issue in a child's life, it's easy for parents to fall into the lecture mode. "Do this... don't do that" is likely to fall on deaf ears - spurring even more resistance to discussion. When parents truly listen to their children, encouraging them to express personal views, communication is enhanced.
- Encourage your child to examine, clarify, and discuss his own values about sexual issues. Parents hope the family values will be accepted. Be prepared to hear that some of your child's views differ from yours. Make it safe for him to disagree; help him know your love and support is not contingent on his acceptance of your views.
- Acknowledge your child's reactions... something like: "You look uncomfortable talking about this. How can we make it easier?" or "When I was young, I was so confused about sex that I had a hard time asking questions. Is that how you feel?"
- Acknowledge your own feelings, for example: "I'm frustrated that you seem to be tuning me out. I'd like to be able to talk about this together."
- Invest in some of the wonderful sexuality books written for young people. Leave them in an obvious place.
- Keep your sense of humor... and use it. This needn't be a heavy subject. Take comfort knowing that your child is moving toward A.P. (After Puberty).
Give yourself a break. Your influence on your child is a powerful one...and only one of many. Remember, you can take neither credit nor blame for the ultimate outcome. You can only give it your best effort.
The Times They Are A Changin'
Over the last several decades, our society has undergone vast changes in sexual attitudes and behaviors, leaving today's youth - and their parents - facing difficult and complex issues. Sexually explicit messages permeate our lives. The impact is especially powerful on young people who lack the maturity, wisdom, and insight through which to filter the messages.
Coupled with inadequate knowledge and understanding about sexuality, the result can be significant: vulnerable youth at risk of premature sex, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sexual abuse, and exploitation.
- There are over 1 million teenage pregnancies each year in the U.S.; 84% are unintended.
- 8 out of 10 boys and 7 out of 10 girls aged 15-17 have had sexual intercourse.
- 1 out of 6 teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted infection.
- The U.S. has one of the highest teenage pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates in the developed world.
Research consistently shows that open, honest family communication about sex can reduce the risk of a child becoming one of the statistics. What better way to ward off the tragedies of sexual ignorance than to take preventive measures early on ... such as education.
Most parents recognize the importance of sexuality education and in fact are eager to provide it. Yet many are not prepared for the depth of information and skills that is important during the middle childhood years. It's time for more advanced discussion: sexual relationships, birth control and sexual protection, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, etc.
Some parents fear that addressing such issues will condone, encourage, or promote sexual activity... put ideas into the kids' heads. Not so. Surveys of young people clearly demonstrate the ideas are already there! All the more reason for mom and dad to initiate discussion, provide information, and share values. In fact, some studies show that children raised in families with open, honest communication about sexual issues are more likely to delay first intercourse and if they do become involved in a sexual relationship, they are more likely to protect themselves. When parents withhold information about sex - particularly issues such as birth control, sexual protection, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS - their children's vulnerability and risk increase.
What this ultimately boils down to is the first basic rule of sexuality education: Teach them what you think they need to know... and more.
For the majority of 12-year-olds, these more advanced sexual issues can still be addressed at a fairly non-threatening, nonemotional level, since most young people this age are not yet personally involved. This is not likely to be the case a few years down the road. And once the issues become more pertinent in their lives, the discussion becomes controversial... more difficult. Which brings us to the second basic rule of sex education:
The best time to talk is now.
Ritchie & Karen
You're likely to have a few ideas about when your child will be old enough for a boyfriend/girlfriend. Your child is likely to have some ideas about that too - perhaps vastly different from yours.
It's an old parent lament: kids are pressured to grow up too fast these days. Well, merely bemoaning that fact will do little to help them deal more effectively with the situation. Absolutely forbidding children to be swayed by such pressure isn't very useful either.
No one is suggesting that children be encouraged into social situations prematurely. But realize that elementary school children, some as early as 4th or 5th grade, play with the concept of relationships ... boyfriend/girlfriend, etc... some more seriously than others. And be sensitive too that these interests and attractions may not all be toward the other gender.
There's the usual scribbling of hearts and initials on notebooks, making phone calls and passing love notes. Unfortunately, some 6th graders (more typically 6th grade girls with older boys) get more involved in various levels of sexual experimentation ... a sobering thought. It isn't too early to talk about feelings (and pressures) that often accompany interest in romantic relationships. This is another example of addressing an issue before (hopefully) it becomes an issue! It's a chance to talk about friendship and about relating to both genders comfortably, respectfully. You can help prepare your youngster for the fun and excitement of such relationships, as well as for the frustrations, uncertainty, and disappointments that sometimes result.
Establishing supportive and loving relationships is not something people automatically know how to do. There are skills involved - skills which can be taught and nurtured throughout childhood. But young people are less likely to look to their parents for assistance with these skills if they fear being teased, not taken seriously, or met with "You're too young to be interested in boys/ girls."
Surely we don't want our children to learn about relationships from the media (with its unrealistic, romanticized portrayal of the "ideal" couple), or from trial and error. We'd rather they feel free to bring their feelings and questions to mom and dad.
The importance of talking with your child about social relationships - ahead of time - cannot be overemphasized. Just as different children experience vastly different rates of physical development, social development varies. This can result in worry... "All my friends talk about boys constantly, but I'm just not interested. What's wrong with me?"; embarrassment... "My folks tease me whenever girls call the house. I hate it!"; pressure... "I've got to have a girlfriend/boyfriend because everybody in my class does."; confusion... "I'm a girl, and I like other girls!"
Concerns about being popular, dressing right, looking good, fitting in - these are major issues for 6th graders! By talking about this, parents give children a chance to vent their feelings. It may take a bit of encouragement. After all, many children (and parents) are reluctant to talk about such personal things.
Kids need help negotiating the complexities of relating. Without it, they may stumble through... some with more difficulty than others.
The Media... The Message
- Surveys indicate that many teens believe TV offers realistic sexual messages.
- By age 18, the average student has spent 11,000 hours in school, compared to over 15,000 hours watching TV.
- Young people cite the media as one of their major sources of messages about sex.
And we wonder why we have problems? We're far beyond the days of "Ozzie and Harriet," where any bedroom scene consisted of twin beds, lights on, feet on the floor. T.V. has crossed the threshold: In network shows, explicit physical portrayal of intercourse occurs. Actors may be covered by a sheet, but the activity is unmistakable.
Sexually explicit messages permeate our lives. What's a parent to do? A good first step is awareness - recognizing the frequency and impact of these messages.
It also makes sense to monitor films, T.V., radio and web sites our children tune into, realizing we can never completely isolate them from questionable or offensive messages. Despite house rules and guidelines, children are often exposed to inappropriate media without our knowledge or consent.
Help your child develop a filter through which to sort and interpret the messages. Teach him to be a discerning viewer, to identify and evaluate content. Assist him in recognizing exploitive, irresponsible, and unrealistic sexual messages. A good way to do this is to watch movies and TV, surf the net, etc., with your child, and then have a discussion about it.
Encourage your child to express his views (for example: "How do you feel about the way women were portrayed in that movie?" "Why do you suppose advertisers show sexy people to sell their products? What message does that send?" "What do you think about the teenager in that film keeping her baby?") Share your thoughts and values too.
We needn't analyze all media to death... just be alert to the messages. It's a good way to temper a powerful influence.
It's important to talk with 6th graders about sexual (mis) information and peer pressure.
A good way to broach the subject is to share a bit of your own past (which kids love!). "I remember the wild ideas we heard about sex when I was young. Like: you can't get pregnant the first time you have sex or having sex proves you're grown up. What kinds of things have you heard?"
Impress on your child that when it comes to sexuality, accurate sources are important. Suggest some options: parents, teachers, school nurses, counselors, etc. Realizing they have several alternatives, young people may be less inclined to accept their peers as "sexperts."
Make it safe for your child to discuss sexuality with you.
- Listen to his concerns, questions, etc., knowing that interest in the subject doesn't mean he's sexually active or considering it.
- Respect his right to express views which may differ from yours.
- Present facts along with your values, being careful to differentiate between the two.
- Trust his ability to make good decisions, if given information and taught the skills.
Peer influence isn't confined to sex OR youth. We contend with it at some level throughout our lives. Your child will benefit from learning how to deal with it now.
What Do I Say About ...
When it comes to discussing sexual values with your children, say what you believe. It's that simple (or that difficult). Premarital sex. Birth control. Teen pregnancy. Sexual orientation. These are a few of the issues milling about the minds of 6th graders. Provided the opportunity and an atmosphere of trust and safety, young people ask lots of questions about these and other sexual topics.
They're anxious to hear the facts... AND what mom and dad think. Often, mom and dad aren't quite sure what to say or how to say it. So they may opt to avoid the subject altogether, hoping the kids won't bring it up... which they won't if the impression is that mom and dad would rather not talk about it.
Let's look at some reasons parents are unsure of what to say or how to say it:
- "I don't want to encourage her." A common fear, but listen: your youngster needs no encouragement. She's getting plenty from peers, from the media... maybe it's time she heard from you.
- "I don't want to preach." Good. Your children don't want that either. But expressing your personal beliefs about an issue isn't the same as trying to force someone else to accept them. It's all in the delivery. For example, a parent might say, "I believe teens are too young to have sex. There are good reasons to wait (such as: there's a lot of responsibility and emotional implications which most teens are not ready to accept; they may feel pressured into it, and wind up feeling regretful; there is a risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections)."
- "I don't want my son to think that as long as teens use birth control, it's OK for them to have sex." Fine. Don't tell him that. Informing youth about birth control is not an open invitation for them to have sex. Parents may fear they are giving a double or contradictory message ("Don't do it... but if you do, use a condom."). Such is not the case if information AND values are shared. The result is a loving, helpful message. For example: "I don't think teenagers should have sex. And I realize that many do. It's important that they protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections."
Could it be that some parents avoid discussing controversial sexual issues for fear their children may not accept their beliefs?
"Then what would I do? How would I handle that?" It's a tough one, all right facing the fact that ultimately our children form their own opinions and develop their own value systems which may or may not be in line with ours.
It's also true that most children eventually adopt many of the family values. Nonetheless, they need the opportunity to examine, question, challenge. Would you rather your child test out ideas and views about sexuality in an arena of open communication with mom and dad - or through experimentation?
Encourage the discussion of
sexual issues, remembering to listen to your child's views as well
as state your own. Take on the controversy. Say what you believe,
taking care to present the facts as well as what you value... while not
confusing the two. Check out our Resources page
for additional web sites and books.