What do teens want to know?

2014-11-09 22:29

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion forum at a local high school on topics related to sex, pregnancy and so on, along with a clinical psychologist and medical doctor. The panel discussion followed individual talks that each of us had given to the girls from grades 8 to 11. We returned to answer anonymous questions which the girls had submitted after the first round of talks.

I was struck by how neatly the questions fell into two separate categories. The first category being the sex-related stuff they don't talk about in LO. Yes, your grade 8 daughters have questions about anal sex, or the relative safety of swallowing vs. spitting. Our sex ed lessons focus very much on the basics - vanilla, heteronormative and very hazy on the female experience of sex (i.e. her job is to avoid sex and if she can't, then she must avoid pregnancy, but that's as much as she needs to know); followed by a heavy emphasis on contraception and HIV / STD prevention. That emphasis on health is correct and belongs there. But there's a lot more we're not talking about, and questions remain.

The most fundamental question is: am I normal? Is this normal? What we currently teach doesn't get close enough to providing an answer. Ideally, of course, teens would be asking their parents these questions. Whether they truly can't ask, or they just think they can't - either way, many parents have some stepping up to do when it comes to providing real, practical information. If they don't get that info from you, they will go somewhere else. And no, it won't be that 1970's copy of The Joy of Sex hidden on the back of the bookshelf.

Quickest way to ensure that a child doesn't ever ask you anything? Act shocked when they do. You've essentially answered their "Am I normal?" question immediately and the answer they hear is a resounding NO. They won't be back.

Face to face talk is obviously better, because you can tell immediately if they've misunderstood something and you can put them right. Some of the questions asked made it clear that despite all the education offered, many still have confusion and misconceptions about even the most basic concepts. If you can't stomach a personal discussion with your teenager further than the birds and the bees, there are a million reliable, sensible sources of information out there to point them to. Nobody else is going to do this for you. This is your job.

Didn't YOU have questions when you were 14? Have the intervening decades erased your memory and replaced Teen You entirely with Upstanding Citizen You who only ever has sex with your spouse with the lights off and only then in order to conceive? Your Google search history tells me different, buddy.

The second category of question was really interesting. So many concerns about relationships. What should I do if I like a boy who is younger than me, for instance. Will I always be emotionally attached to the first person I have sex with? What should I do if my boyfriend does this or that. What about when others are spreading rumours about my sex life? How to respond to receiving unsolicited naked photos? The list goes on.

This tells me that nobody's paying enough attention to teaching young people how to treat each other, whether in a romantic relationship or not. That was somewhat disheartening. (Understatement of note there).

The other thing I realised is that so many teenagers want a simple, black or white, yes or no answer to every question. They need to know - is this ok?  It's incredibly difficult to give the kind of answers they want. Because so much of life is a grey area, where you have to exercise your own judgement. Too many young people have never had the chance to exercise that judgement muscle, even a little bit, having relied all their lives on the rules of others to guide them entirely. They're essentially asking for more rules - when in truth, in real life, there aren't many besides "Do unto others has you'd have done unto you". They need to learn that skill of figuring things out for themselves - and yes, maybe screwing up on the way. If you always let others set your boundaries for you - when those people are no longer there, you won't have any of your own.

I was very impressed by the school's openness to this type of discussion. Hopefully the girls left feeling better informed and slightly less worried about being normal.

In this case, we spoke with the girls, and many were not happy that the boys were excluded. I completely agreed, and look forward to being back to have the same discussions with the boys. I understand the thinking that speaking to each separately might make them more comfortable opening up. However, how are boys and girls ever going to learn how the other thinks and feels, if they don't hear it straight from the source?

A little awkwardness never killed anyone.

There are plenty of other things that can.

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