There's No Place Like Home for Sex Education: 8th Grade (page 2)
Strains and Gains
Guiding children through adolescence is an incredible challenge. Despite the wisdom gleaned from their own life experiences, parents often feel unprepared for issues currently facing teens. Lessons from our own adolescence may not hold true for today's youth.
It's also true that during their children's teen years, parents are given an amazing gift: the opportunity to guide and support a young person in becoming capable and independent.
"You call raising adolescents a 'gift'?" laughed one parent. "It's the biggest struggle of my life! Rebellion! Turmoil! The complete absence of rational discussion. Hah! Some gift!"
It may be tempting to equate adolescence with horror … but to the extent parents focus on the difficulties and pain, they miss the joys.
For young people, two major tasks are at hand:
- Establishing independence—asserting themselves as separate and distinct from mom and dad.
- Defining/clarifying a personal value system.
Simultaneously, parents face their own tasks:
- Letting go—allowing children the freedom to develop their separate identities.
- Establishing an atmosphere of safety and acceptance—in which attitudes and values can be explored, tested, challenged.
Heavy stuff … thus the "horror, pain and difficulty." Yet, when you understand the parent/child roles during adolescence, you can more effectively offer guidance and support.
For parents, it's unsettling to realize, "I don't have the ultimate power to create how my child's life will be." Long before their teen years, we recognize that, in the long run, kids make their own decisions. Parent influence carries some weight, but wanes over time. Which is ok. After all, we're raising children to be responsible adults, capable (we hope) of making healthy choices in their lives.
Teens may select paths and adopt values that are different from our own, or not what we'd prefer. That's hard for parents to accept particularly when the issues are so very big: relationships, sex, drugs, etc.
Amidst all of this, parents are expected to let go, yet still provide guidance. This requires that they:
- Offer opportunities for children to make their own mistakes … then assist them in learning the lessons;
- Express the family values and beliefs … then accept that the children may not fully embrace them;
- Listen, without judgment, to ideas expressed by children … then recognize the need to offer input—not dictates—based on personal beliefs.
Sounds good … but how to apply it? Especially with tough issues like sex? How can parents help kids make wise choices about their sexual behavior in a world that is sexually explicit and permissive?
You can only do your best … and there are no guarantees. Still, you can build the odds in your child's favor. Speak truthfully and sincerely with your child about sex. Offer the facts s/he needs to be informed and safe—along with your personal values—without suggesting they are one and the same.
Your 8th grader deserves to hear information about sexual development, intercourse, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, birth control … as well as your beliefs around these issues. Many young teens are experimenting with risky sexual behaviors! And it simply isn't enough for parents to say, "Don't!"
But I'd Rather Talk To …
As young people physically and sexually develop during adolescence, they're inclined to want to discuss related concerns with the same-gender parent or adult. (assuming they're OK talking about the issue to begin with!)
"I always had such a close relationship with my son, Tim," one mother recalls. I prided myself in communicating openly with him about sexuality since he was very young. Tim's dad rarely involved himself in those discussions."
"So, I was surprised—and I admit, hurt—when Tim began confiding more in his father. Now he prefers to talk to his dad about sexual issues. I wondered if I'd said or done something wrong."
Sounds like Tim is a typical young man, gravitating toward dad, especially when the subject turns to sexuality. That doesn't mean, mom, that your input is no longer important. Continue to let Tim know you're there for him. And, respect that at this stage of his life, Tim feels more comfortable discussing "guy stuff" with a guy. This a nice opportunity for Tim to develop the sharing and trust with his dad that he's long enjoyed with you.
So what about single parents or gay- and lesbian- headed families? Parents working to be both mom and dad to their teenagers confess they struggle with sexuality issues. They might consider calling upon grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. to fill their child's need for same-gender role models.
As parents address these special adolescent needs, they create opportunities to keep communication open, share information and family values, and assist children in feeling confident and comfortable with their changing sexual selves.
"I understand this business of same-gender role models and confidants during adolescence. What I don't understand is this intense "attachment" Rick has to his teacher, Mr. Brown. It's as though Rick has a crush on the guy! Is this … normal?"
It's not necessarily an indication that Rick is gay, if that's what you mean. And crush is a good description of what's likely going on. It's common for adolescents to develop a strong connection to a same gender person of importance in their lives: a teacher, coach, perhaps even a classmate. This person might be someone they greatly admire, or someone they want to be like. Such friendship may offer them a deep sense of being cared So what about single parents or about, understood and accepted.
The special bond they experience with this person often allows them to feel safe to seek advice or share their feelings and concerns. They may try to spend as much time as possible with this person, and may even feel jealous or upset if the relationship changes.
Such feelings can be terribly confusing to a young person—and to parents. If you're concerned about the relationship or believe your child may have concerns, talk with him or her about it. Have an open discussion about what defines a healthy friendship. Talk about the importance of honesty and respect in a relationship—no hidden motives or manipulation. Friends care about each other with no strings attached. If that's not the case, maybe it's time to reconsider the relationship.
Adolescents have many hidden anxieties about sexual orientation. "How can you tell if a person's gay?" "If a person masturbates, does that mean s/he's gay?" "Lisa and Ann are always together. They must be more than just 'friends,' don't you think?"
Lots of questions, confusion … whether they're verbalized or not. Initiate the conversation, and help your child sort it out.
Knowledge Is Power
Talking with your teenager about the pleasures, responsibilities and risks of sex does not imply that you sanction teens having sex. Birth control, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STI¹s) and HIV—these are just a few of the sensitive issues young people need to understand. When parents are forthright and honest in discussing such topics, they help their children develop respect for intimate relationships.
As part of this, of course, parents share personal values, religious beliefs, moral viewpoints, etc. Certainly, children want, need and deserve that.
While no one suggests that these discussions be a "how to" manual, sexual specifics are important to the health and well being of teenagers. Without such information, they are less able to make positive, appropriate choices around sexuality. Facts about birth control, risk of pregnancy, how HIV and other STI¹s can be contracted and prevented: how does a parent approach such sensitive topics without fear of giving a double message ("Don¹t do it … but if you do, use a condom.")?
You can communicate a loving, practical message. A parent might say something like: "Your father and I believe strongly that teenagers are not ready for the emotions, responsibilities and risks that go along with sexual intercourse. We believe in waiting until (you fill in the blank: marriage, a particular age, a committed, mature relationship … whatever you¹re comfortable with). If young people do have sex, they need to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy by using effective birth control and reduce the risk of infection by using condoms."
"Our hope is that you confide in us if you¹re ever wrestling with decisions about sex. We¹ll do all we can to listen and to offer you information and guidance to consider in making your choice. Our highest priority is your wellbeing, so we want you to be informed."
"I¹ve told you how mom and I feel. I¹m interested in hearing your thoughts about this."
Please know that offering such messages to young people does not encourage them to have sex. Rather, teenagers who are denied such information and communication are more likely to risk unprotected sex.
Remember the importance of listening to your children¹s opinions on these issues … even though at times, their views may be quite different from yours (and thus, hard to hear). Make it safe for your teenager to express personal thoughts without fear of judgment or repercussions. If s/he is met with anger or intimidation, s/he won¹t be back a second time. And you will miss the chance to explore and evaluate a variety of ideas with your child.
Within such discussions, many worthwhile points can be made … about love, intimacy, reasons why people have sex (both good and not-so-good), peer pressure, exploitation, delaying sex … a wealth of important stuff! A genuine give-and-take of ideas can allow your child to sort out the issues and draw some conclusions—hopefully before s/he is confronted with making the choices.
Teenage Sexual Health: A Guide for Counselors, Nurses, Teachers, Sex Educators, Physicians, Parents & Teachers
Amelia M. Withington, David A. Grimes & Robert A. Hatcher
Irvington Publishers, 1983
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Talking With Your Teenager
Ruth Bell & Leni Zeiger Wildflower
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1984
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Straight from the Heart: How to Talk to Your Teenagers About Love and Sex
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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