Let’s talk about sexuality with teenagers
Frequently, when we talk about sexuality, people tend to equate it immediately with sex. However, we know that they are two different things, though they do relate to one another. We could define sexuality, in the broadest sense, as a form of human communication and as a source of health, pleasure and affection. Educating and caring for sexuality is more than just explaining reproduction, it is helping and favoring the development and global growth of the person, that is, it is taking into account all its aspects: physical, emotional, social and affective.
One of the most important conversations parents will have with their children are about sexuality and everything it entails. Though there is always the question of how and when to do it. Sexuality, as mentioned before, is an inherent element of one’s personality; it is there throughout one’s life, from birth to death, and the way one manifests and lives it differs from person to person, as does the way one expresses it at different stages of life. The information that parents give will depend on their period of life, but also on the questions that they pose as they grow.
When children start reaching adolescence, parents have to face the reality of having the talk, or should we say the talks, as this is a topic that will and should come up often in conversations with both children and teenagers. One of the reasons why parents or any type or parental figure can come to fear adolescence, is because teenagers usually discover their sexuality to the fullest during this period of their lives, or at least it is when they can get to feel it more intensely. And because we associate sexuality with sex, this notion can prove to be quite challenging.
If we think back to what our own parents taught us, if they did at all, we will realize that things have drastically changed in the past couple of decades. Having this conversations are now more than just giving girls the talk about periods, and boys condoms for when they need them. Before, people did not learn about the social realities of sex, consent, how to engage in healthy romantic relationships, or what are acceptable behaviors for them to have. Now, to talk about sexuality is to discuss all of that, and also diversity, gender roles, values that we want to promote, tolerance and acceptance of others.
The fact is that there is no way to avoid adolescence, but what we do know is that what happens during this stage in your teenager’s life will largely depend on the education that they have received at home. Psychologist Elena Crespi states that there are things that have to happen at home in order to aid the teen have a healthier and clearer view on this topic.
- Sexuality has been normalized as something natural, even if it is a bit embarrassing: naming things by their name, not hiding the body, showing affection, explaining where babies come from clearly and without strange metaphors, etc.
- Their self-esteem has been enhanced and they know how to fend for themselves, they have self-confidence and they love themselves.
- They have been taught to relate to others assertively.
- Communication has been open and honest.
Parents also have to take into consideration what the world will tell their children about sexuality. It will be taught at school, discussed with friends, discussed online and through social media. Nevertheless, know that young people do trust the information they get from their parents, in fact, research tells us that 12-15 year olds consistently say that their parents are the most important influence when it comes to making decisions about sex, even more so than their friends, the media, religious leaders, siblings or sisters, or their teachers. However, parental influence diminishes as children get older, which means it’s important to start talking sooner rather than later3.
By talking about sex and sexuality with your child, you will help him or her sort through the many messages they get about sexuality from other sources. In addition, it can help your child make positive, safe, and informed choices now and in the future.
You can make these conversations easier by:
- Making use of everyday opportunities to talk about sexuality – such as when you hear something on the radio or watch something relevant on TV.
- Telling your child, you are interested in their perspective -example, asking them what they think about sexual identity.
- Assuring your child that he or she doesn’t need to feel embarrassed when they raise issues – you could suggest that you look for the answer together.
- Asking your child what they already know, then adding new information and clarifying any misconceptions.
One more tip we have for parents and caretakers out there is to be patient with yourselves as well as with your children and teens. It is ok not to know everything, though it is important to do your research and find out about those things you do not know. Making mistakes is also ok, and being honest about it also teaches your children that they are allowed to make mistakes as well. Let this be an opportunity to be the right source of information for them, and create a space where you can both learn and communicate openly about anything they have concerns and doubts about.
This article is a result of collaborative writing with Mariana Mata Ruiz
1 Infante, A.; París, Á., Fernández, L. y Padrón, M. (2009). ¿Y tú qué sabes de “eso”? Manual de Educación Sexual para Jóvenes. Málaga: Área de Juventud, Deportes y Formación-Centro de Ediciones de la Diputación de Málaga.
2 Crespi, E. (2019). Habla con ellos de sexualidad. España: Lunwerd.
3 The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2016). Survey Says: Parent Power Washington, DC: Author.