By: Erica Smith, M.Ed. and Jasmine Oglesby, MSW
As sexuality educators with a combined experience of almost 30 years, we have heard many questions from tweens and teens over the years. What we have learned is that young people are very comfortable talking with us, often in great detail. We have learned that most of them have great questions – and a lot of them – long before they become sexually active.
In this second part of a two-part series, we share what we have learned about young people from these questions and provide guidance for parents based on our experiences. In our first blog, we let parents know that the most two common questions are basically, ‘Am I normal?,’ and ‘What is normal?’ In this blog, we discuss other common questions, including ‘Who am I’, and ‘What should I do (or not do)?’
Who am I?
A key part of adolescence is figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and how to grow into the best version of yourself. Along the way, young people try new things as they learn what suits them best. In doing so, they slowly figure out what defines them, what they like and what they do not like. They may be asking themselves: Am I a jock, a nerd, a techie, a party-animal or a home-body?
Another big part of this process is figuring out one’s sexual identity. In today’s society, we talk a lot about sexual orientation and gender identity. These are one part of a person’s sexual identify, but not the only part. A young person may feel that they are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, etc. Regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, young people are also figuring out more basic things like whether they feel comfortable holding the hand of someone they are attracted to in public. Or, how they feel about one day becoming a parent. Or, what gender-roles feel most comfortable to them within a relationship. These are an important part of establishing one’s sexual identity as well.
In our experience, youth have so many questions, concerns, and insecurities as they think about these questions. They really benefit from having a safe, trusting relationship with a knowledgeable adult. We strive to provide honest and supportive answers for these teens as well. We encourage parents to do the same. While parents are obviously the most important source of information and support for youth, it is our hope that parents will encourage their children to talk honestly and openly with them.
What does it mean?
Youth really want to discuss their romantic relationships. They want to make sense of the rules, rights and responsibilities that go along with being in a relationships. This leads to many questions as well.
- Why does this boy or girl act jealous or possessive?
- Because we’re “talking,” does that mean we’re in an exclusive relationship?
- Do they have a right to get mad if I interact with another boy or girl in person, or on social media?
- This person I’m dating wants me to have a baby with them, is it too soon? If that is not what I want, how do I say ‘No’ without pushing them away?
The relationship questions cover many aspects of relationships, but power, control, and abuse come up most frequently. We encourage parents to talk to your son or daughter about unhealthy and healthy relationships. Parents can help young people to think critically about the type of relationship they want to be in and use that to consider if the relationship they are in matches their dream-relationship.
There are other opportunities to show your teen what a healthy relationship is, without even talking. Parents and other adult role model’s healthy (and unhealthy!) relationships within the family, community or neighborhood every day. These relationships represent teachable moments, everyday events that teach young people what is acceptable behavior.
What is right for me?
We spend a lot of time helping young people figure out what feels right to them. What decision in different situations is the best choice, what their gut tells them is right.
For example, we field many questions about birth control methods. There is a lot of distrust of many kinds of birth control among young people, much of this is based on information from friends, family members, and cultural messages that birth control is either bad, or that teens who use it are not good kids. These messages cause a lot of anxiety in teens without helping them to decide when using a birth control method may be right for them.
We spend a lot of time providing careful education and information about the pros and cons of each method. We talk about the fact that these medicines are tools that can help young people who choose to have sex and want to avoid getting pregnant, but are also commonly used for period problems, like irregular, heavy or crampy periods. This allows teens to choose the best one for them, if they decide that birth control is right for them. Our recommendation for parents is that telling young people about medicines that can prevent pregnancy is not the same as telling them to have sex. Tell your daughter or son what you expect of them – for example when you think it is appropriate to have sex and why. But, do not forget to also give them information to make healthy decisions.
But remember birth control is not the only place where young people may be wondering ‘What is right for me?’ When to date, who to date, what parties to attend, what people to hang out with, where to meet romantic partners – these are just some of the many types of questions that fall into this category. Again, parents should try to find teachable moments when they can ask their young person to consider “what feels right?’ Television shows, movies, and music are great places to see these themes and discuss them with your youth.
What should I do (or not do)?
Tweens and teens ask us lots of questions as they try to understand what socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are. Questions about consent are one of the most common. Given the Me-Too-Movement and ongoing discussions about sexual assault in the media, this is not surprising.
Teens often want to know if something they experienced “counts” as sexual assault or rape. They want to talk about the pressure they’re feeling from their partner to have sex, or the pressure to not use a condom. They want help exploring if having sex at a young age with an older person was really something they wanted to do, or if it was something that was forced upon them. These are among the most difficult conversations we have.
One thing we have learned is that is important to teach young people about consent and the rights they have over their own bodies. They need to hear this not just from sexual health educators and health providers, but they should hear this from parents too. Talking about this before your child is thinking about having sex or even before they begin to have romantic feelings for others is a way to empower them to be safe.
These are absolutely conversations parents can have with their youth. The discussions currently happening in the media can be teachable moments that parents can use. With so many different stories coming out and different perspectives from people involved in the same situation, parents have an opportunity to ask their tween/tween for the youth’s opinion. In doing so, parents can learn a lot about how their tween/teen perceives different situations and can clarify what behaviors are ok and which are not.
Who else has my child’s back?
Parents should know that youth can speak openly and honestly with their healthcare providers as well. In fact, it is recommended that youth have private conversations with their health providers during which parents are not present. This allows tweens and teens to receive accurate and honest information and support about sex and sexuality even when they’re feeling too shy to ask their parents. Maybe especially then.
- Importance of Askable Adults, who are non-parental adults.
- Discussing healthy relationships
- Share your values and experiences with your tween/teen about sexual health
- Giving your teen information about sexual health helps them to make decisions on their own that keeps them safe
- Tweens and teens want to talk to trusted adults about birth control, sexuality, relationships and consent.