Parents: Have The “Sex Talk” With Your Teens Or I Will

istock_000016267513small-dad-and-daughter-talking-400wI don’t really like talking to other peoples kids about sex although as a counselor in a high school it’s something that inevitably happens.

I wrote earlier about talking to preteens about sex, but I’m finding that many teens have never  had the “sex talk” with their parents beyond their parents threatening to kick them out or disown them if they ever got pregnant (although I’ve never known a parent to actually follow through with either  threat).

However, because many teens don’t feel like they can talk to their parents about sex, they are getting their information from some very unreliable sources which usually leaves them unprepared mentally and emotionally for the complexities of sexual activity and vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and even abuse.

Last Monday I was counseling a young teenage girl who had just turned 15. She admitted to me nearly a year ago that she not only was having sex, but had been with several partners, most of them not even her boyfriends but guys she was friends with or guys she just liked.

Well now she has a new boyfriend who is a virgin, and although they have been together for a several weeks (which is forever for teenagers), they are thinking about having sex.

Let’s call her Trisha and her boyfriend Zac.

Because Zac is a virgin and apparently has a better relationship with his parents, he told them about him and Trisha’s plans to have sex. Zac’s mom was a little upset, but realistic and instead of scorning her son, she talked to him about sex and protection, a very good call. What she did next however, I’m not so sure how I feel about, but I understand it.

After talking with her son about sex, she then talked to Trisha about sex, assuming that she too was a virgin. She even went as far as to say she would get Trisha birth control, which made Trisha very uncomfortable.

Parents, do you really want someone else talking to your teen about sex and birth control, especially a parent that you do not know?

Well if you don’t talk to your teen about sex, someone else will and they may not have the best information and probably won’t have the same opinions, views or values as you do.

I was concerned because I felt like this was something Trisha should be talking about with her parents, not Zac’s, yet Trisha feels like she can’t talk to her parents about sex because they hold both her and her older sisters to such high standards and even threatened to kick them out if they ever found out they were having sex. By the way, according to Trisha, they are all already having sex.

Because of this fear of not only disappointing her parents, but also of getting kicked out, Trisha doesn’t feel safe talking to her parents about sex at all and has just been getting her information about sex from her friends and sisters, who are all also high school teenagers.

I encouraged Trisha to sit down and talk to her parents, at least her mom about sex.

She wants to get on birth control, but doesn’t think she can talk to her parents about that and definitely doesn’t want to get birth control from Zac’s mom. I even offered to have a family session with her and her mom and/or dad to help facilitate “the talk”, but she’s too scared to even discuss sex with her parents and let them know that she is thinking about sex, let alone already having it.

I know from past experience, because of this fear of talking to her parents about sex, she leaves herself vulnerable.

She’s more likely not to use any protection consistently or properly and to hide everything from her parents, including if she ever feels violated, if she ever thinks she may have a sexually transmitted disease, if she ever gets raped or if she even gets pregnant.

One girl I knew hid her pregnancy from her parents all the way up until she went into labor and had a child at 15. Her parents had never had the “sex talk” with her and it was only then did her parents find out that their daughter was no longer a virgin.

I definitely don’t want that to happen to Trisha and so if she is afraid to have the sex talk with her parents, I feel like it is my responsibility to at least give her valid information about sex, protection and to point her in the right direction for other information and questions she may have.

We talked about condoms, the importance of putting them on correctly and using them each and every time from the beginning to the end. We also talked about birth control for her, but I strongly encouraged her to have the conversation with her parents. I also had the school nurse talk to her and gave her several pamphlets for her and her boyfriend about sex.

She had lots of questions and lots of the information she had was so invalid that she was sure to end up pregnant before graduating from high school, such as standing up right after having sex is a foolproof way to avoid getting pregnant because gravity will prevent the sperm from swimming up.

Another thing I did was encourage her to wait. I talked to her about how sex can change relationships, sometimes for the worst and how there are other things they can do besides having sex, such as holding hands, kissing, hugging,  talking, going for walks, out on dates, etc.

All the while I also kept encouraging her, trying to give her the strength to have this conversation with at least one of her parents. I don’t think a 15 year old should be engaging in intercourse, but she’s already been doing it since she was 14 so we have to be realistic.

Many parents feel like having the “sex talk” will encourage their teens to have sex, but teens are going to be curious about sex and may engage in sex regardless. It’s just a matter of how informed or ill-informed they will be.

Lot’s of parents feel betrayed and hurt when they find out their teenager is having sex, almost as if they just found out their teen was using drugs.

Remember that consensual sex between teenagers is not a crime and your teen is more likely to get pregnant or worse if they feel like they can’t talk to you because you will get mad or upset. It’s important that parents put their emotions aside and consider their teens’ choices and emotions.

I encourage parents to talk to their teens about sex, about being safe and healthy. They can also allow their teen to talk to their doctor about being sexually active and the physical responsibilities that come along with that, if they don’t feel comfortable or knowledgable enough to do it.

It’s important that your teen feels like they can trust you and that you guys have an open relationship where they can talk to you about everything, just remember that even with that, your teen probably won’t tell you every single thing.

The teen years are about trying to discover their own independence and breaking away from their parents some, so accept that there may still be things your teen won’t tell you, but make sure that they know that you will be there for them if they need you.

While I definitely prefer not to be the one having the sex talk with your teen, I’d much rather do that now than to be talking to them about how to get a pregnancy test, being good parents while trying to stay in school or about visiting a free clinic to get tested for a STD,  three conversations I actually have way more often.

Disordered Eating And Body Image Issues In Teenage Girls: Part 1

6a00d8341bf67c53ef014e8c0ffaab970d-800wi (1)Working in a high school with teenage girls, I come across teenage girls with body image issues regularly.

Take for instance, one of my 15 year old clients who is so convinced that she is fat that when I first met her she was only drinking water mixed with apple cider vinegar for breakfast and lunch.

For dinner she would have a very small meal. She was not overweight, but due to teasing about her “putting on some weight” by both her mom and peers, she see’s herself as fat and ugly.

Because of all this, her self-esteem is shot and it’s taken weekly individual therapy sessions and weekly support group sessions to get her to at least start eating a light breakfast and lunch, although she is still struggling with body image and self-esteem issues.

Society Creates Body Image Issues In Girls

Unlike boys, teenage girls are put under immense pressure to be beautiful, thin and feminine in most Western industrialized countries. However, biological changes and weight gain are natural parts of pubertal development.

Like the client I was talking about above, her weight gain seems to be more of a womanly weight gain. She seems to be filling out and taken on the body of a woman, compared to that of a prepubescent child. This natural weight gain that most girls experience during puberty, goes against our cultural’s  view of what being beautiful is, which for women includes extreme thinness.

These are conflicting messages for preteen and teenage girls.

On one hand, they are naturally developing and putting on weight, while on the other hand, they are getting messages from society that says their weight gain is unattractive.

Female identity in one part is defined in relational terms, society says they are supposed to be interpersonal and care about other peoples needs, feelings and interests which makes them more vulnerable than males to other people’s behaviors towards and opinions of them.

Another major part of female identity is beauty. In our culture, physical attractiveness contributes a lot to interpersonal success, which is one of the main reasons females strive to be beautiful, to assure popularity and respect.

Also, physically attractive girls are typically seen as more feminine compared to less attractive girls or girls who challenge our cultures traditional views on femininity through their political views such as feminist, or through their sexual orientation, such as lesbians.

Girls tell our society that they are feminine by being concerned with her looks and trying to achieve our culture’s ideal of beauty.

Because our culture demands that girls care about other people’s opinions and that they are defined by their physical appearance,  which society says includes being very thin, there’s no wonder girls are motivated to pursue thinness, at times by any means necessary including starving themselves to death.

Combine these issues with the natural weight gain of puberty and there’s no wonder many teenage girls develop body image issues.

Many teenage girls I’ve worked with who are physically perfect, not even slightly overweight, some were even underweight,  suffer from intense body image dissatisfaction.

A girl I’ve been working with since last year was naturally thin, yet wanted to be thinner so bad that she starved herself to the point of needing to be hospitalized. Like many of the girls I work with who have body image issues, her pursuit for thinness and beauty was so consuming that almost every other aspect of her life, including her education, goals and future took a back seat.

Eating Disorders

Not all girls with body image issues go on to develop an eating disorder like the young girl I just mentioned above, but many of them will.

Eating disorders are a major concern when it comes to the health of teenage girls with an estimated 1% to 3% likely to meet diagnostic criteria for either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa is when someone refuses to maintain a minimal average body weight and has body image disturbances such as feeling fat even when they are very thin, and in females who are menstruating, they may experience amenorrhea if their body weight is low enough.

Bulimia nervosa typically includes periods of binge eating, followed by drastic methods to compensate for the binge eating including excessive exercising, fasting, vomiting, using laxatives, etc., accompanied with body image disturbance such as thinking one is much more overweight or unattractive than they really are.

Besides these two eating disorders, there are some girls who have other patterns of eating that fall under disordered eating, such as laxative abuse, vomiting after eating some meals, extreme calorie restriction, and binge eating.

Eating disorders typically begin in early adolescence with much of it’s symptoms typically evident by the late teen years.

While not all girls with body image issues develop full blown eating disorders, there is little research into why some girls do and others don’t develop an eating disorder.

During part 2 we will look at some of the risk and protective factors for young girls to develop an eating disorder.

Setting Expectations And Rules For Your Teen

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As I thought about this post, I watched as four young teens, approximately 13 years of age, two boys and two girls, stood on the corner flirting for a second night past 10pm on a school night.

I started thinking that sooner or later, one or both of those young girls is bound to end up pregnant, and then I started thinking, where are there parents and why are they allowing their young teens to be out so late on a school night unsupervised.

Then I started thinking that there are probably no set rules or expectations in these teens households.

They are probably being raised with inconsistent and even contradictory messages. Yet, when one of these young girls ends up pregnant, their parents will be shocked and angry that these young teens “disappointed them”.

Rules and Expectations

Rules and expectations are two different things that together help guide your teen as they navigate through the murky waters of adolescence.

Expectations help you define the standards of behavior you expect from your teen such as being responsible and making responsible decisions.

Rules on the other hand help to bring your expectations to reality such as requiring your teen to finish their chores before going out with friends. Rules and the consequences of those rules help your child with both understanding your expectations and learning self-control.

As always with teens, communication is key. I am always amazed at parents who come to me disappointed in their teens behavior when they never actually sat down with their teen and discussed their expectations in the first place.

The teenager may have had some idea about how their parents felt about certain issues, but without a clear understanding of what the parents expect, they leave a gray area and teenagers typically don’t do well with gray areas. They like to know exactly where you stand.

Sitting down and speaking with your teenager about your expectations also opens up the door to talk about risky behaviors.

Clearly defined expectations about limits for risk-taking behavior helps your teen be prepared for temptations and challenges that will face them when confronted with risky decisions towards things such as alcohol, drugs and sex.

When you lay down clear expectations, you are letting your teenager know that they are responsible for their behavior.

This discussion also allows for you to hear what and how your teen thinks about certain issues and also gives you the opportunity to help them think more realistically.

A lot of teens think “this can’t happen to me” or that they are immune to many of the perils we as adults know are out there.   Talking to your teen will give you the opportunity to educate them on the possible consequences of their decisions and behaviors.

No matter how clear you think you have made your expectations, your teen may still feel unclear about them. Rules help to enforce your expectations.

Many parents are unsure about how to set rules and what rules are needed. Here is a good starting point.

Besides rules regarding substance use and other risky behaviors, you also want rules regarding:

  • curfew
  • unsupervised time
  • homework
  • chores
  • driving
  • cell phones
  • internet use
  • use of other media such as movies, television and video games

Naturally, most teens are going to try to push back against rules, but teens do want and expect limitations and boundaries.

Be respectful, listen to your teen and explain your reasons for having the rules you do. Some parents feel like they don’t have to explain any rules they set to their children, but children tend to follow rules better when they at least understand, even if they don’t agree with them.

Other tips include:

  • Focus on setting rules for safety based more on guidance than power, control or punishment.
  • Don’t be overly intrusive or restrictive, but still be firm.
  • Give your teen an opportunity to negotiate some of the rules, but remember that you have the final say
  • Be very specific when it comes to substance use. Such as letting your teen know that they are not allowed to use alcohol, tobacco, prescription medication or any other illicit drug at all.
  • You should set very fixed rules regarding health and safety, and then negotiate with your teen about other rules.
  • Be flexible with those other rules (outside of health and safety) and willing to renegotiate as your teen shows maturity and responsibility.

Along with clear rules and expectations, there should also be clear consequences for breaking the rules.

Consequences help teens slow down and think before they make a risky decision and also provides them with the perfect excuse to tell their friends if peer pressure is an issue.

Tips for setting consequences:

  • Consequences should be something the parent can follow through with consistently in order to be effective. Many parents are very inconsistent with following through with consequences which teens pick up on and it makes it more likely that they will disobey your rules. 
  • Consequences should be logical, and more about teaching than about punishing or retaliation.
  • Remember that consequences can be positive. Praise your teen when they are doing something right, when they are following the rules and they are more likely to continue.
  • Award your teen with special privileges or  some other type of award for following the rules.

Without rules and expectations, many teens are lost and parents feel as if they have out of control or disrespectful kids when in reality, the child never learned the rules, expectations or the consequences of breaking those rules and expectations.

How The Internet And Technology Are Affecting Our Teens

black-female-teen-textingToday’s children are using the technology and internet more than ever, with approximately 93 percent of them online and at least 73 percent of them using social networking sites, while 75 percent of them own cell phones according to data from Pew Internet American Life Project.

With this increased presence on the internet and use of smartphones and tablets comes concerns by teachers, parents and counselors  when it comes to what exactly are our kids doing online and on their smart devices.

The media fuels much anxiety when they report on issues such as “sexting” with young people sending provocative photographs of each other back and forth through their cell phones. Images that can end up in the wrong hands. Even videos of risque and sexual activities are spread through cell phones and often end up going viral and creating new avenues for harrassment, bullying and embarrassment that may seem inescapable.

Something that may seem like a good idea five minutes ago can end up haunting a teen for weeks, months, or even a lifetime.

The large majority of children and teens who use the internet and cellphones do so responsibly. It is a rather small segment of children who abuse the internet and technology.

Online bullying, also known as cyber-bullying  is a real concern as it typically targets kids who are already being bullied or harassed in person. They are most likely already facing multiple challenges as is. With online bullying, kids who are bullied already in person, feel like there is no escape from the bullying as they are also targeted online where the bullying can be relentless due to the hidden nature of the internet.

To some adults and parents this may seem silly, but you have to understand to to teens, much of their social life is conducted online so an attack on their online social life is pretty much an attack on their world.

We all know of the horror stories of teens who were bullied to the point of suicide such as Amanda Cummings. Children who are being bullied are more likely to suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, social problems, substance abuse and are more likely to have poor relationships with their caregivers.

Teen friendships and relationships are more and more online so they depend more on social networking which is one reason cyber-bullying can be so detrimental.

Look at Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend situation. Here’s a college age young man that reportedly met and fell in love with someone online he never met. I’ve counseled many young teenage girls who were depressed and suicidal after a break up with someone they met online, but never met in person. This just goes to show how entwined the internet, social networking and technology are to the lives of young people and of course, some of us adults as well.

Some research also tries to suggests that the internet is not giving teens more access to sexual content and that they are still finding it the old fashion way through television, movies and music. This may be true when it comes to suggestive and “soft” content such as kissing, hugging and touching or showing a couple having sex under the covers, but the teens I work with look for the more hardcore content found on the internet. They visit free porn sites on their phones and computers often, usually out of curiosity or for amusement, but still it’s through the internet that they access these hardcore porn sites.

It’s frightening to think that many of these same kids viewing porn on the internet, have parents who are in denial about their teens sexual or potential for sexual activity and have not actually had any real conversations with them about relationships or sex and so while watching this porn, they are also getting education, or mis-education that their parents likely would not approve of.

One thing I have noticed, and what made me want to write this post in the first place is that I think in part because of social networking, today’s teens are less private and understand the meaning of privacy less than teens in the past.

So many times when I am talking with a group of teens, outside of the confidentiality of an actual group setting, one of the teens will start talking about something very personal and private such as thinking that they are pregnant, stating that they just had an abortion or miscarriage, or thinking they may have a sexually transmitted disease, you name it, they’ll blurt it out.

At that point I’ll try to stop them and tell them, “I think this is something we need to talk about in private” and sometimes they will still press on and say “No it’s okay, I don’t mind talking in front of them” and I’ll have to continue stating “No, we need to talk about this in private”.

Many of them seem to have lost the sense of privacy and I contribute at least some of that to the amount of private information they share on social networking sites.

The downfall in that is that some of the private information they share to people who don’t value them or their privacy, will be turned around and used against them, sometimes to the point of harassment and bullying.

They may not realize the fact that they just had an abortion should be kept private, until they read about it from someone else on Twitter or a random stranger comes up and asks them. Then they may be shocked and embarrassed, but they were the ones who originally divulged that information to begin with.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of physical and verbal confrontations I’ve seen between high school girls that started this way.

At the same time, research shows that overuse of social media is linked to poor health, poor grades and symptoms of mental health problems such as narcissism.

Part of the reason for this is because young people often wake up to, live the day through and go to sleep with technology. They wake up checking their text messages, their social media sites and continue that throughout the day until they go to sleep at night, which research suggests is making them more prone to mental health problems, poor grades and even being physically sick more often.

Take for example that teens that study for one hour, focusing on their assignment, do better than teens who study, yet check their text messages or social networking sites periodically while they are studying.

I thought about this as I watched my niece who is a high school junior studying the other night. Her text book was in front of her, her cell phone in her hand and periodically it would light up and she would reply to a text and then go back to studying. I think within a thirty minute period she probably did that about seven to ten times.

Researched done by Larry D. Rosen, PhD. that is not yet published shows that “Whether they checked Facebook just one time during a 15 minute observation period even predicted worse grades”.

Besides narcissism, teens who overuse social media sites also show more signs of other mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

The news of course isn’t all bad.

While some research shows that teenagers are less empathetic due to being over sensitized to  pain and misery on the internet, other studies show that teens who engage in social networking are more likely to show “virtual empathy” which can translate to them showing more actual empathy in the real world.

The internet of course offers us much in the forms of information, education and entertainment, but parents should set clear guidelines and limits early on with their teens about the internet and technology they use to avoid overuse and abuse.