Back in the ’80s, parents, the media and Tipper Gore worried that MTV, sexually explicit lyrics, rap music and makeup-wearing bands would lead to teens’ moral decay. (Remember Twisted Sister?) And now more than ever, pop culture and social media are sending kids mixed messages about sex, love and everything in between.
But Gen X parents can have an enormously positive influence on their kids’ behaviors and beliefs with open dialogue. “These are not onetime conversations,” says Dr. Aletha Akers, an OB/GYN and medical director of adolescent gynecology consultative services in the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Kids’ understandings evolve as they do. Talk early and often with them.”
First, delete the traditional “the birds and the bees” talk. Those “Papa Don’t Preach” lectures typically focus on good girls, bad boys, the repercussions of unexpected pregnancies and the wrath of disappointed parents. Instead, be proactive. “How many of you went to your parents and said, ‘I’m going to have sex tonight. Anything you want to tell me?’” Akers poses.
Talking about sex doesn’t mean that kids will necessarily engage in it, says Dr. Rachael Polis, a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatric and adolescent OB/GYN. “You’re laying the groundwork for ongoing communication,” she says. “If we’ve had these conversations throughout their lives, our kids are more likely to come to us when issues arise.”
Consider enlisting the help of others. “Pick people in your family or social network who your child already trusts,” Akers suggests. “Activate those people and tell your child that they can talk to them.” Medical providers are part of that network. Pediatricians can not only educate kids but also empower them to make healthy decisions about their bodies.
Some of that is done without parents in the exam room. By age 12-14, kids should have confidential visits with their doctors. Sexual activity is only one thing pediatricians ask about. They also screen for tobacco and alcohol use and mental health issues. Pediatricians encourage kids to ask questions—especially about reproduction. “Many kids think that if you have sex at all, you can get pregnant or an STD,” Akers says. “Kids don’t have the same understanding as adults. Things can seem very black-and-white to them.”
Contraception isn’t black-and-white, Akers says. Patients’ maturity levels, medical histories and lifestyles play big roles in determining if and what physicians prescribe. Starting at age 14, teens can get prescriptions for contraceptive medicine without their parents consent. That’s the law in Pennsylvania, though it varies by state. “Laws were made because patients may not seek services if parents are notified of sexual activity, and that may leave them at risk for STDs or pregnancy,” says Akers.
Prescribing contraceptive medicine, however, is at the discretion of the physician. “Depending on the patient, we may suggest including a parent or older sibling in the conversation,” Akers says.
The physical aspects of sex are one thing. Navigating romantic relationships is different—and difficult, even for adults. Consent is a big issue, as the Me Too movement has shown. “Every step of the way, the girl can say no and the boy needs to hear yes and vice versa,” Polis says. “Just because the girl or boy said yes two days ago doesn’t mean she or he has to say yes today. You’re never obligated to do something you’re not comfortable doing.”
No one wants their kids to have bad experiences. Ideally, parents want them to be in healthy relationships that lead to good decision-making about sex. “Parent with values,” Polis says. “If you think sex should only happen within long-term relationships or marriage, say that. Talk about healthy relationships.”
Those may be “do as I say, not as I do” conversations, but that’s OK, Akers says. Kids need a lot of guidance in understanding relationships. Songs and movies are generally filled with unrequited love, broken hearts and revenge, but kids need reality-based understandings of romance. Look for teachable moments, Akers suggests. Frozen had a lot of messages, she says. Though handsome and outwardly charming, Hans had a sinister plot to marry Princess Anna, murder her older sister Elsa and claim the throne. “Anna was looking for love and latched onto man who didn’t have good intentions, and that’s an opportunity to talk about who is good to be with romantically,” says Akers.
Akers used Frozen to talk to her kids about trust, respect and friendship. Those are the ingredients of healthy relationship, she says. And that’s the message that really matters.