Teens’ Developing Sexuality

The Birds and the Bees and Developing Sexuality

It’s no surprise that the most common phrase used to describe sex and sexuality – ‘the Birds and the Bees’ – refers to nature. When we hear it, we know it means explaining the mechanics of sex to young children. Although no one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, we are sure that almost everyone eventually learns about sex. Typically, parents are a child’s first sex ed teacher. What many parents do not know is that young people prefer learning about, ‘the birds and the bees’ from parents rather than from their friends or others outside the home.

Sexuality includes more than just the act of sex. It includes a developing awareness of your own sexual desires and attractions. It includes developing skills that allow for long-term healthy relationships.

A Parental Role

Parents play a much larger role than they may realize when it comes to shaping young people’s understanding of sex and their developing sexual identity. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that most teenagers believe it would be easier to delay sexual activity if they were able to talk openly and honestly with their parents about topics such as sex. They also found that open and honest communication helps teens avoid early pregnancy.

When it’s time to talk about puberty, sex, and sexual identity, it’s important to remember that parents’ open communication makes a huge difference.

Parents play a much larger role than they may realize when it comes to shaping young people’s understanding of sex and their developing sexual identity.

Tips for Successful Conversations

The information and values shared during these conversations will stay with children long after the conversation is over. Here are some suggestions towards creating an environment for a successful conversation with teens about sexual health.

1) Make sure children know the changes they’re going through are normal

Puberty is a time when many adolescents have lots of questions about newly changing bodies. The one that comes up over and over again is: Am I normal? It’s important to reassure them that changes are normal, that everyone goes through them at their own time and pace, and that the experience may be slightly different for everyone. During puberty, children will change in many ways. Some changes, like physical changes in height, weight, breast, and genital development are easy to see.

Other changes, such as thoughts and feelings are not so easy to see, but are just as important. It is normal for children to have sexual urges and sexual thoughts about other people. It is also important to know that although most will, some will not. Either way, make sure your children know this is normal. Talk often. Find ways to stay connected. Be aware of the ways your children are changing. These are all important factors in delivering successful messages.

2) Help young people feel confident in making decisions

It’s not uncommon for some teens to say they are planning to have sex in order ‘to get it over with’. They may feel like this would make certain peer pressures go away. Many of the messages they receive from friends, the media, music, movies or television may make it seem like adolescents need to act on the sexual feelings they may be having.

Your job is to make sure they know that’s not the case. Parents can help young people clarify their own values and develop resistance skills against negative peer or media influence. Talk to them about the many options for dealing with their sexual feelings. Share your values and expectations about their choices. And, be honest in providing them with information to make safer choices. This is an opportunity to discuss what they have heard about abstinence as a guarantee against physical risk. Giving misinformation in an attempt to make your children do what you want them to do will likely backfire.

3) Avoid shame

It does more harm than good. Remember to avoid making young people  feel badly about the changes they’re going through. This can be a very confusing time. They need love and understanding and someone they can trust to talk with. Shaming harms your child’s ability to develop a healthy sense of sexuality. It may also damage your relationship, making it hard to talk openly and honestly in the future.

Many parents have an idea in their mind of when their children will have sex. Some want it to be once they get married. Or, simply when they are older. Many parents also have an idea of the type of partner their child should choose. Leave yourself open to the very likely possibility that your child may make choices that differ from your own. You will have the most influence if you listen without judgment and help them to clarify their values.

4) Create space for open dialogue that explores your child’s opinions

Talking about sex and sexuality does not have to be forced or difficult. Many things that come up in the media offer lots of opportunities to talk on a daily basis. Using examples from television, movies, magazines, or billboards allows for questions and conversations to evolve naturally. It might surprise you that many young people not only want to talk about these things but they have thoughts and opinions about them as well. You can start by asking your teen if they like the clothes on a favorite model or celebrity and why. Ask about what message they feel those wardrobe choices send to others. Remind them you are not judging their answers. Rather, this is a way of helping them think about how they present themselves as a sexual person to the world. You are helping them raise their own awareness.

Ask your child for thoughts about TV shows or things in the media and pop culture that interest them. This will open the channels for conversations. It also helps you to get a further glimpse of the young person your child is growing up to become. You will learn what they think and why. And, you will be able to see how those thoughts are growing and changing over time. Remember that you are helping them to mature into the best people they can be, not into a version of yourself. So, give your adolescents  space to agree and disagree with you. You might be surprised at how truly amazing they are. Just like the first day you brought them home, they are always full of surprises.


Tips for Talking About Sex and Sexuality

Talking about sex and sexuality can feel awkward. But conversations with your teen are important and shouldn’t be avoided out of discomfort. Click through to learn effective strategies for making these talks as productive as possible.


Be Honest with Yourself

Conversations are easier when your child senses you’re open to having them. Know yourself and what your comfort level is before starting the conversation.


Start Early

Even young children can learn essential lessons about self-respect, appropriate touching and setting limits. Make discussions developmentally appropriate. But know that it’s never too late -- your communication about sex makes a difference in your teen’s choices.


Talk about Safety

Your teen will absorb concerns more easily when you make your point of view about safety.


Talk about Values

Conversations shouldn’t just be about the mechanics of sex. They should also be about healthy relationships, self-respect and the beauty of mutual love.

5) Create a “judgement free” zone

Remember to keep your conversations simple. Do not lecture. This is so important that we will say it again: Do not lecture! No one likes to talk with someone who only values their own ideas and opinions. Your child is the same. A conversation is a two-way street. Share your thoughts and let your child share theirs. If you experience an answer to a question that is difficult for you to hear, do not make your teen think their  answer is “wrong” just because it doesn’t match your opinion.

Ask how they came to their answer. Or, why they hold a particular idea or belief. That will help them to develop self-esteem. It will also help them learn to think critically about information and ideas they are hearing. No one is born knowing everything. We all had to learn how to think about the things we see and hear around us, put all that information together, and shape the ideas and beliefs that make us who we are. Your adolescent is doing the same thing. Creating a “judgment free” zone will demonstrate they can trust you. They will know that they can talk to you, even about difficult topics without being judged.

6) Know yourself!

Only ask as much as you’re willing to honestly know. This means knowing what things you are comfortable with and what things you…may not be. There may be things about sex and sexuality that you can share easily with your child. But, there may be others that you are uncomfortable even saying out loud. That is normal! Each of us has our own comfort zone. It is based on the ideas we have about the world that we learned from our own parents, religions, and cultures.

In this very diverse world, expect there may be some things your child may be exposed to or want to talk about that are difficult for you. That is ok. Let them know. If you can talk, do so. If you cannot, let them know that. But listen to them if you can. Help them to find an additional someone they can talk to. Helping your child to develop a healthy sense of sexuality will require the proverbial ‘village’. You should not think you are alone in helping your tween or teen  on this journey.

7) Know your resources

During the transition to adolescence, you and your child should know that there are many different types of care providers who are available to help, if needed. This may be your child’s pediatrician, a doctor who specializes in adolescent care, a pediatric gynecologist, teacher, school counselor, health educator, a social worker, or a youth-serving adult. These specialists may talk with your child about healthy romantic relationships, managing peer pressures, gender identity, pregnancy prevention, and about how all these things fit in with your child’s life goals.

Parents and other youth serving adults are so important for helping young people develop a healthy sense of sexuality.

Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

About Aletha Akers

Aletha Akers, MD, is a faculty member at CPTC and adolescent gynecologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a featured expert discussing healthy sexuality, communication, and more. Dr. Akers brings many years of expertise in community-based research and translating science into educational materials. She founded ParentsAreTalking.com, a site providing resources parents can use to guide conversations with their teens about sexual health.

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