By Erica Rood, M.A. Ed.
Sex and dating may be one of the most difficult topics of conversation for both parents and teens. Many families avoid the topic altogether. Some skirt around it, others tackle it head on. Whichever scenario is playing out it your family, the truth is, teens are having sex. They are curious, experimental, and whether ready for it or not, they are becoming sexually active as early as eighth grade. As a parent it’s important to understand this “hook-up culture” and keep an ongoing, open dialogue around sex and dating. Whether they show it or not, teens are desperate for information and guidance.
- Relationships and dating. Teenage girls are in the prime of identity formation. They are also beginning to understand the building blocks of healthy relationships. During this time, it’s important to talk with your daughter about the components of a healthy relationship. You can start this conversation even before a romantic relationship is in play. Talk about what makes her friendships and family relationships strong, safe, and happy. When she can understand what makes these relationships strong, she will better understand how to identify and experience a healthy romantic relationship.
- Handling conflict. When in a romantic relationship, your teen’s moods may be even more extreme. She’s added a new dynamic to an already emotionally rocky stage. In her relationship, she may panic at the first sign of conflict. You can help by supporting her in understanding how to handle disagreements in a confident and empowering way by encouraging her to share her feelings with her partner, listen and try to understand her partner’s point of view, and recognize if and when it’s time to walk away.
- How a friend becomes a boyfriend. There are several stages teens move through before a friend becomes a boyfriend. First, teens express their interest in one another, then they may start “hanging out,” finally, they start “dating” and the labels boyfriend and girlfriend come into play. Each of these stages can last from a few days to a few weeks, and each carries a very different meaning to your teen. Be sensitive to these stages and supportive of your daughter’s choices, challenges, and experiences. In other words, don’t laugh off her longing, love, hurt, or disappointment. Each of these stages is an opportunity for her to develop her emotional strength and identity.
- Sex vs. Intimacy. Teenagers need help in understanding the difference between sex and intimacy. Intimate relationships are safe. They welcome open, honest communication and provide nonjudgmental support. Intimate relationships do not have to include sex. Point out that sex does not necessarily lead to an intimate relationship.
- The Sex Talk. As you engage in these conversations about sex, share your values, expectations, and concerns. Listen to her perspective with an open-mind. Refrain from judging or reacting to a worst-case scenario, and instead ask open-ended questions that get her thinking about her motives for having sex, the social and emotional ramifications, and the impact on her personal, family, or religious values. Also, address these sub topics:
- Boy vs. girl sex. Girls are more likely to develop emotional attachments than boys. For boys, sex may simply be a sense of conquest and physical release. While many boys do develop emotional attachments, their motivation for having sex is often quite different from the girl’s.
- Pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Rather than preaching facts and statistics, use real life scenarios to drive home the seriousness of teen pregnancy and disease.
- Contraception. Research has shown that discussions of contraception postpone sexual activity and reduce high-risk behaviors.
The Bottom Line
You will not know everything your daughter does, nor will you have direct control over her choices, but you can take steps to maintain a positive relationship during the teen years. Remember that nothing shuts a teen down more than the rants and raves of her parents. Instead of coming from a place of fear, stay cool and keep the lines of communication open. Support your daughter through honest, frank, and ongoing discussions. This is the key to sustaining influence on her choices, especially as they relate to sex and dating.
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