Teenage sexuality: The challenges for parents
For many years, my brother and I went on a spring backpacking trip in the North Cascades. It’s a beautiful landscape, with jagged peaks and rushing rivers. When my daughter was 17, we took her and her boyfriend on a four-day trip. My daughter and I slept in one tent and my brother and Gabe slept in the other one. It was a great trip. On the trail back, my brother, who had older kids, kidded me—“Don’t be surprised when Maya wants to go backpacking with her boyfriend next weekend”. I was shocked. The thought never occurred to me.
Like clockwork, a few days later, Maya asked me if she and Gabe could go backpacking that weekend! Of course, I said no. She wanted to know why. I simply said—“I’m not comfortable with the two of you going alone”. Always the actress, she paused, for dramatic intensity and stated: “If you’re worried that we'll have sex, don’t worry” she said, “we’re already having sex." My jaw hit the floor—I was speechless. The horse was out of the barn.
Adolescent sexuality poses tough challenges for parents. It makes climbing Mt. Rainier look like a walk in the park.
It’s uncomfortable, anxiety provoking and awkward for Mom’s and Dad’s to know what to do, what to say and what to expect. The tween and early adolescent years foreshadows the tough times ahead. Young teenage girls, becoming aware of their burgeoning sexuality, want to wear revealing clothing. Parents turn into clothing cops—allowing some things but draw the line elsewhere.
Today, movies and TV pitch graphic images of adult and adolescent sexuality. Very little is left to the imagination. Even PG-13 movies can be racy. Everyone looks cool—why not try out what you see on the screen?
It’s not like adolescent sexuality is a new idea. But the longer view, inherent in being an adult, suggests that teenage sexuality is more emotionally challenging, complex and downright disappointing than it appeared at the time.
Intimacy stimulates powerful emotional responses in kids and adults. Adolescents are notoriously fickle. Today, Joe loves Mary, but tomorrow he thinks Sarah is even more interesting. Harriet wants to spend every minute with Bill, but two days later, she can’t even remember why she liked him. Adolescence is a roller coaster ride of emotions, attachments, friendships, and romance. Shakespeare wasn’t kidding when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet”! Teenage love is a dangerous business.
So what can parents do?
- Talk to your kids. It’s an awkward subject and kids are often embarrassed when you discuss sex with them. But don’t let that stop you from exploring their thoughts about sex and sharing your opinions. Consider the message that you want to deliver? Stick with what is really important. Kids want to avoid this conversation, but don’t let them off the hook. It’s critical.
- Talk about birth control. Even if you are clear that you don’t approve of or want your teen to have sex, they still need to understand being responsible. You most likely do not want a pregnant daughter or a son to become a parent at 15! Encourage conversation about birth control with your teens' primary care provider, even if they have no interest in having sex. The teenage mind (and body) lives in the moment, which can change like the weather in Washington.
- Take the long view. I held the line about conjugate camping for a long time, but at a certain point, I gave in. I could see that my paternal emotions were controlling my thinking. When we looked at the facts, my wife and I realized that this was not a hill worth dying on. But these are all individual decisions, based on your own values, beliefs and the circumstances that arrive at your doorstep.
There is no universal right or wrong approach to handling adolescent sexuality. You have to decide what is vital to you.