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Teen Sexuality: Suggestions for Parents and Other Caregivers

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Parents and other caregivers can assist youth to understand that sexual thoughts, sexual questions, and sexual desires are perfectly natural and normal at this age. However, the way a youth behaves in response to this natural and normal sexual interest can result in wise and thoughtful decisions, or impulsive reactions with negative consequences. Furthermore, it is important for parents to recognize the many external factors that can influence youths' behavior including social influences such as peer pressure; media messages about sex; parental discipline; emotional support; and objective sexual information and knowledge.

3D Figure leaning on question markAs discussed many times throughout this series of articles, youth learn a great deal by simply observing other influential people in their social networks. So, if they perceive that most of their friends are having sex, or their musical idols are "tweeting" about having sex, they may feel more comfortable, tempted, or pressured to do the same. Similarly, if their friends are committed to abstaining from sexual activity, or their sports heroes advocate abstinence, youth may feel more inclined to abstain.

The media in all its various forms also exerts a powerful effect on teens' sexual behavior and choices. From advertisements that present seductive images of very young girls, to movies and television shows that normalize adolescent sexual activity, the media has an enormous power to influence children, adolescents, and adults. However, unlike adults with mature cognitive abilities, children and youth are more vulnerable to media influences because they are less able to separate fact from fiction, and less able to analyze the validity of information that is presented.

While parents are rather powerless over the influence of media and social networks, they should not feel helpless. In fact, there are several ways that parents can positively influence youths' sexual choices by: 1) applying appropriate discipline and proper guidance, 2) offering emotional support and understanding, and 3) providing objective and accurate sexual information.

Parental discipline and rules affect not only youths' perceptions and values about sex, but appropriately enforced rules and supervision can limit the opportunities to participate in irresponsible sexual behaviors. As well, when youth feel understood and emotionally supported they can talk candidly and openly with their parents and/or other trusted adults about sexual concerns. As such, they will be more likely to receive the accurate, factual information that is essential to making wise decisions. These discussions also provide opportunities to discuss the need to formulate a thoughtful plan for decision-making when it comes to romantic relationships and sexual choices. These discussions can prompt youth to plan out how they want to personally handle any sexual situations that may arise. If abstinence is their choice, parents can help youth learn how and when to communicate this decision to romantic partners, and how to negotiate with their partners to remain abstinent. Or, if they choose to become sexually active, parents can ensure they know how to take precautions to limit the chance of an unwanted pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD).