Recently, newspapers, magazines, and television news programs across the country have been filled almost on a daily basis with stories of unimaginable horror about teenagers leaving newborn babies abandoned on trash heaps, murdered in bathrooms and hotel rooms, and left in closets. One story tells of a young man, knowingly infected with the HIV virus, who continued to infect numerous sexual partners until he was identified as the person responsible for mini-epidemic involving ten people for certain, and perhaps many more. Authorities say that up to 80 young men and women may have been infected through primary or secondary contact with him.
We read of young women who deliver full term infants without having been aware that they were pregnant. In my own clinic the Adolescent Health Center, a part of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, it is not unusual for young women to see a physician because they believe they have a "stomach virus", only to be diagnosed as being six to seven (sometimes even more) months pregnant. There are times when a young person will even be accompanied by a parent, who is also ignorant of the fact that her daughter is in the third trimester of an unplanned pregnancy.
What is behind these bizarre and heartbreaking occurrences? Why, in this rich and powerful nation that prides itself on being "advanced", is there so much unplanned teen pregnancy, STDs and sexual abuse? There are many reasons for these events. However a large part of the problem stems from the lack of communication between parents and their children about sex and sexuality. Without accurate information lovingly given, our young people are stumbling in the dark. Things that must be spoken about are remaining unsaid, and the results as we see, can be tragic.
Children must have clear, correct information about sexuality in order to make wise choices. Study after study reveals that while young people learn from friends, school, and the media, they would really like to get the answers about sexuality primarily from their parents! With that in mind, I have compiled a list of Do's and Don'ts that I hope will help people talk with their kids about sex:
Normalize Sexuality. Sex is an integral part of people's lives no matter what their values or views.
Acknowledge your own fears and concerns. We may be adults, but most of us didn't grow up feeling comfortable with and talking with our parents (or anyone else) about sexuality.
Talk about sex. Use whatever time or tools you have; at dinner, watching TV, driving in the car. They may roll their eyes and feign embarrassment, but really they'll be pleased to know.
Tell your kids that it is okay not to know everything (or be totally cool) about sex. None of us knows everything.
Be clear, specific, and factually correct. Your kids have the right to unbiased information about puberty changes, reproductive health, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation, pregnancy and parenting, HIV, and STDs.
Teach your family's values about sex, but don't preach. If you think your kids should wait before they have sexual intercourse, tell them. Tell them gently but wisely. Offer them positive alternatives to sexual behaviors you wish them to not engage in.
Talk about protection....the different kinds, where we get them, and where to go for information. Show them condoms, go on a shopping trip with them to the local pharmacy.
Get help if you feel uncomfortable....by taking a sexuality class, attending a workshop, talking to other parents, or reading a book.
Assume they are too young to know. If they are asking the questions, they want and need the answers.
Assume boys that know everything they need to know. Research shows that American boys know far less about sexuality than girls.
Believe the myth that the more your kids know the more they will do. Studies reveal that the more information and the more discussion young people have about sexuality, the less likely they are to engage in unsafe sexual practices.
Think you have to be an expert. You and your children can learn together.
Dr. Cydelle Berlin, ADOLESCENT HEALTH ADVOCATE
Rewritten from the editors of
GEORGE Magazine: 250 Ways to Make America Better.
Great ideas on how we can improve our country. Intro by JFK, Jr..
Compiled by Caroline Mackler, 1999. Random Ventures, Inc.