Remember what the middle school years were like? An emotional roller coaster: hormone madness and changing bodies; a very shaky self-concept; novel interest in the same or other sex - which is exciting, awkward, confusing - all at the same time; a simultaneous craving for and fear of new freedom... independence from mom and dad.
Middle school: the wonder years. Young people wonder, "Will I ever be normal?" Parents wonder, "Will this ever end?"
Clearly, life's a challenge in middle school for all involved. It's a time when parent/child conversations of any sort can be tough, and conversations about sexual issues impossible!
For parents, there's a temptation to shy away from the subject. Old anxieties come back to haunt us. Concerns like: "Maybe all this discussion with children about sex isn't such a good thing. We don't want to encourage them... you know, put ideas into their heads." Or: "Is it a mistake to talk about this so openly with kids? Why not let them stay innocent as long as they can? There's plenty of time for them to learn about all this adult stuff."
Sound familiar? Rest assured, mom and dad, the very least of your worries is the "ideas" you might put into your child's head. The reality is, your 7th grader is exposed to a daily barrage of sexual messages, from peers and the media. The messages are frequently inaccurate, irresponsible, even exploitive!
As parents, you're in an ideal position to clean up sexual "mythinformation." The "ideas" you'll be putting into your child's head are about your family values around sexuality; they're about accurate information, respectful, positive attitudes toward sexuality, and about love, trust and support.
But what about the fear that knowledge equals activity - that giving kids information on all this adult stuff might encourage sexual experimentation?
Research indicates that such is not the case. In fact, teens are far more likely to learn by doing when they have been kept ignorant (innocent?); have been given little or no opportunity to talk openly with parents or other trusted adults about sexual issues; and when their sex "education" has been left to peers and the media.
Surely, as a parent you do not want to leave your child's sexual learning to chance. The results of "trial and error" sexuality education are disheartening at best. Often they are devastating: premature sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections. These are just a few of the consequences of sexual ignorance.
So, mom and dad, put those old anxieties back where they belong - and remember what you already know: your children need and deserve to hear from you about all the issues of importance to their lives... including sexuality.
During the wonder years, kids and parents have loads of things they're concerned about, confused by, frightened of. Making it safe for the family to talk about sexuality lightens the load. Difficult? Embarrassing? Awkward? Sure! And well worth the effort.
Stuck for an icebreaker? Try something heartfelt and honest, like, "You know, talking about sex is a little uncomfortable for me. I imagine it's hard for you too. I do think it's important that we talk, so... maybe we can help each other out, ok?"
Broach the subject by using "teachable moments" like a news story on HIV or teen pregnancy. Watch TV. together and discuss the sexual messages you notice. Take any and all opportunities you can, mom and dad, to put your ideas into your child's head!
Puberty. Almost sounds like a disease. For those experiencing it, it often feels like one. Of course, much of that has to do with the incredible physical changes that occur: hormones surging, bodies transforming (usually into sizes and shapes that are NEVER right!).
And let's not overlook (as if we could) the emotional upheaval that accompanies puberty: intense feelings of excitement, anxiety, happiness, anger, sorrow, delight... perhaps all within a matter of hours! Imagine experiencing such major change without understanding - without having a clue that it's all perfectly normal!
You can ease your child's passage through the puberty "weird years." Help equip your son/daughter for the journey - with information, support, and plenty of opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and questions.
Although they're dying for answers as well as reassurance, many 7th graders are reluctant to approach mom and dad with their concerns. Don't mistake their silence as a sign that they know it all or don't want to talk about it. Sometimes their confusion is so great, they don't even know what to ask or how to begin! Add to that the awkwardness that often goes along with conversations related to sexuality... and you can appreciate their dilemma.
So, mom and dad, initiate the conversation. Just in case your memories of puberty have mellowed over time, here are some of the more pressing concerns:
I'm the tallest (shortest, skinniest,
fattest) kid in the class. I hate it!
Will my penis ever grow?
Why am I so flat chested?
I'm the only girl I know who hasn't gotten 'it' (my period).
AM I NORMAL?
Parents can spare their children anxiety by sharing the details of how this puberty business works.
People grow and change at their own rate, whether they like it or not. AND they begin the process of sexual development at the time that's right for them. Some start early, some late... either way, it's perfectly normal.
Offer your 7th grader a rundown of physical changes to expect during puberty. The entire process takes place over 4-5 years. It's marked by a series of events that occur in a fairly predictable sequence, although some young people follow a slightly different sequence - and that's normal too! Explaining this to your child is far more useful than simply saying, "Don't worry. Your body knows exactly what it's doing."
GENERAL ORDER - GIRLS:
- Breast budding (between ages 8-13)
- Hips broaden
- Straight pubic hair
- Growth spurt
- Pubic hair becomes kinky
- Menstruation (about 2 years after start of breast development)
- Underarm hair
GENERAL ORDER - BOYS:
- Growth of testes and scrotum (between ages 10-13.5)
- Straight pubic hair
- Early voice change
- First ejaculation (about 1 year after testicular growth)
- Pubic hair becomes kinky
- Growth spurt
- Underarm hair
- Significant voice change
- Beard develops
When children can gauge their own development against this kind of roadmap, they feel more assured that they're on track.
Remember too, that puberty is more than just physical change. Emerging sexual feelings, emotions, relationships, stresses... these are all part of the journey, and can be especially difficult to discuss. See our Resources page for more information, including additional web sites and books.
The Dating Game
"I'm just not interested in having a girlfriend, but that's all my friends talk about! Am I weird or something?"
Middle schools are filled with many who fret, "What's wrong with me!?" if they're not yet interested in the other gender. Media and peer pressure to be involved in early relationships heighten the anxiety.
"I wish I was popular like Karen. All the boys like her." Disappointment, bruised self-esteem, secret fears and hurts rarely expressed to anyone - especially parents.
Although your child may not be dating for a while, recognize that many 7th graders sample boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. Help your child understand that people develop social readiness at their own rate. Acknowledge it's often confusing to be surrounded by friends who vary greatly on the readiness scale.
Even if your child hasn't expressed concerns about this, bring it up... just to be sure. Break the ice with your own recollections of 7th grade:
"I remember 7th grade brought lots of worries about dating and relationships. Me? I could have cared less at the time, but I didn't dare admit it. My friends would never let me live it down! But you know, I bet a lot of them secretly felt the same way I did."
"I wonder too about young people who are attracted to their same gender friends. With all the pressure to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, they must feel pretty isolated and afraid to talk about their feelings."
This kind of conversation is a nice acknowledgement that not all people have romantic feelings for or relationships with someone of the other gender. It opens the door for your child to discuss this with you if they are questioning their own sexuality.
By initiating discussions about these issues, you can help relieve the social pressures your children may be experiencing. Explore feelings and situations that can arise when romantic interests begin to emerge. Even if your child isn't ready (or willing) to talk freely about this, you won't be wasting your time. The message will still be heard: "If you find you're feeling confused about this, please know that I'm here for you. I'll listen, try to understand, and who knows? Maybe I can help."
A Little Help From Friends...
The depth of sexuality education required by 7th graders may be more than parents realize. One mother commented, "I didn't know half that stuff 'til I was out of college!" Her husband added, "A lot of it I still don't know!"
It's true. Today's adolescents confront sophisticated, complex issues. In trying to provide information and guidance parents often recognize deficiencies in their own sexual knowledge. It's easy to feel overwhelmed about what to say and when to begin...
If you value family communication about sex, if you recognize that complicated issues must be addressed, and if you are committed to working through any discomfort or resistance you and/or your child may feel about discussing these issues, you're well on the way.
Specifics and practical "how to's" of family sex education can be acquired as you go along. There are many resources to assist you. Planned Parenthood is an excellent source for speakers, books and pamphlets. Community schools and colleges may offer parenting classes that address sexuality issues. Physicians, family counselors and members of the clergy often have valuable insights on sex education.
These resources can be a wonderful support... check them out!
Kids Need to Know; Parents Need to Tell Them
"How do you make a baby?" Remember the first time your little one posed THE QUESTION? You recall with amusement (or chagrin!) the impish delight with which s/he repeated (and repeated) the question - for all the people in the grocery store to hear! S/he delivered the line with such volume, such clarity... and determination!
"How do you make a baby?" A legitimate question, yet one that so frequently catches parents off guard. Why? Maybe we just never expected the issue to crop up at such an early age.
That little one is now a 7th grader... perhaps with parents who are still caught off guard when it comes to sexuality and youth.
It's easy to understand how this can happen. After all, sexual involvement, unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, birth control... surely we would never expect these issues to crop up at such an early age. Yet they are the very issues parents need to address, especially with their 13- and 14-year-olds.
- More than half of all 17-year-olds have had sex.
- 1 in 10 U.S. females aged 15-19 becomes pregnant each year - 84% unintentionally.
- 1 in 6 teens contracts a sexually transmitted infection.
Recognize these young people are very much like the friends and schoolmates of your own children. They may be your own children, your nieces and nephews. They come from all socioeconomic levels, ethnic backgrounds, and religious affiliations. They remind us that teen sex and pregnancy are not confined to big cities or specific racial or economic groups.
No, these are problems of sexual ignorance... and sexual ignorance cuts across all lines.
Comparatively speaking, "How do you make a baby?" is a piece of cake. Now the questions are far more intense. Given the social/ sexual pressures faced by adolescents today, clear, open and explicit family communication is essential.
Please know that family discussions about sex need not be conducted with a sense of urgency or doom. Parents are encouraged to address issues such as sexual intercourse, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections early - before they become immediate issues, and thus a possible source of controversy between parent and child.
Most 7th graders are capable of understanding the broader implications of sexual relationships. Not yet deeply involved, they're better able to have calm, rational discussions with mom and dad about why some teens might choose to have sexual intercourse - including the responsibilities involved and possible consequences.
Granted, the conversation may feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable at first, especially if the family has little history of open sexual discussion. That's ok. The process may take time. Be patient and gentle - with your child and yourself.
This is a perfect opportunity for parents to share personal values and attitudes around sexuality in a non-threatening, non-judgmental manner. It's also a good time to clean up any misinformation about the mechanics of reproduction... as well as other sexual issues.
Despite all that young people have heard about sexuality from family, peers and the media, it's amazing how little they really know or understand. And, it's surprising how much they need to know at such an early age.
Have You Hugged Your Kid Today?
Anxieties surrounding puberty are very big indeed. With attention focused on easing young people through this transition, parental concerns are often overlooked.
Puberty is truly an awkward time for mom and dad. Watching sons and daughters mature sexually is both delightful and disconcerting as parents struggle to relate to their new "growing up person," Ambivalence toward your child's blossoming sexuality is perfectly normal.
Uncertainty can be especially great for the other gender parent who may misinterpret puberty as a signal to "back off" physically. Vague questions can arise about "appropriate" touch, particularly between fathers and daughters.
Perhaps it's the deeply ingrained incest taboo or the misconception that at this age"kids no longer want or need physical affection." Whatever the reason, hugs, kisses, and physical touch so freely shared before may now become awkward and strained.
It's painful and confusing. To a child experiencing the usual insecurities of puberty, this unexplained withdrawal of affection is especially troubling. The result can be loneliness, confusion and lack of connection, for both parents and children.
When struggling with questions of physical touch and affection, parents might consider this: Puberty is a time when young people desperately want to feel normal, accepted, and loved. It's a time when kids need support, reassurance, and appropriate physical contact which says "You're OK."
The need is there, and often intense. Yet a 7th grader rarely admits, "I'd sure love a hug right now." To confuse you even more, mom and dad, s/he may outwardly resist your offers of affection. Respect that, certainly - and recognize it's still important to offer.
It's truly a dilemma: parents are expected to have a magical sixth sense about their children's needs and feelings (despite the fact that they are often masked by contradictory behaviors)!
Puberty is indeed a difficult time ... made even more difficult by miscommunication and reluctance to acknowledge and talk about the fears. Why not share with your child your uncertainty?
One father expressed it to his 13- year-old daughter this way: "Sara, I often find myself wanting to scoop you up and hug and kiss you just like when you were a little girl. I really miss that. And I respect that you're not a little girl anymore. I'm not sure whether you feel comfortable with all that physical affection, so I find myself being cautious about touching you. Can I count on you to let me know what's OK and what isn't?"
Of course, remind your child, "No one - including family members - has the right to touch or approach you in ways that make you uncomfortable. Listen to your feelings, and tell that person to stop. Tell an adult you trust."
This whole "touchy" business is very personal - and different from family to family. Some of us were raised on a diet of hugs, kisses, snuggling... and we feel more or less comfortable with that. For others, overt displays of affection are, and perhaps always were, uncomfortable. There's no right or wrong way to feel about this issue.
The point is, whether it's a hug, kiss, squeeze of the shoulder - whatever - giving and receiving appropriate physical touch that expresses warmth and caring is important to all of us. Our need for that doesn't change - even with puberty. If anything, perhaps the need becomes greater. So rather than presume to know your child's feelings or how s/he wants you to act around this issue. ASK!