Sex Positive Parenting: The Teenage Years

The Teenage Years

Over my career with working with families and young people I have been surprised how common it is for parents to think that child rearing begins just at the point it should be drawing to a close. How many parents with whom I worked only started looking into issues of how to teach their children about sex once they begin to show physical signs of sexual maturity? By the time your child is 15 years old, it is too late to build values and attitudes about sex or any other major part of life. I have long used the analogy that during early and middle childhood the parent is filling up a cup of influence with their child only to be used up when their child becomes a teenager. The goal is to build up enough influence with your child so as to not run out before they become young adults.

The ability for parents to shape their children's values and choices about sex is also coming to an end just at the point the kids become focused on sex. Why is it that parents seem to miss the whole concept that by the time their kids are fourteen, their own power to control or even manage the kids sexual values and behavior is done and gone. Sure parents try to use force to keep their kids from sex, but in the real world such attempts at force are nearly always counterproductive. The only power parents have over their teenage children's sexuality is based on respect, not power or fear. With this approach in mind I will move right into the Sex-Positive Parenting goals for the teen years.

  1. Transform the parent child relationship from one based on authority to one based on mentorship

  2. Your child will transform the family Sex-Positive habits about sexuality into their own, internalized, sexual values

  3. Your child will explore their sexuality at their own pace and avoid external pressures for early sexual debut or identity foreclosure

  4. Your child will avoid the debilitating effects of unrealistic body image expectations

  5. Your child will avoid the most serious pitfalls of the sexual learning process

Transform the parent child relationship from one based on authority to one based on mentorship

This first goal is one that many parents find extremely difficult. For those of you who are not yet parents, let me clue you into an irrational truth of parenting. In our children, all parents see a reflection of their own self-worth. Thus in the teenage years when their children are most seeking to distance themselves from the orbit of their parents, their parents feel obligated to do all they can to pass on their own values. This leads to a common conflict between parent and child and an even more common angst among parents of teenagers that they should have done more to help their children. How many times have I sat at my desk talking to the parents of a teenager who is making poor choices and seen the dismay in their faces when I say there is little they can now do to help their child make good choices. What I don’t say is that their child is acting on the lessons they learned at home when they were young, but it is almost always true.

So, the best approach is for the parent to be proactive in transitioning from authority figure as they have been from birth to a mentor and supporter by the time they are upper classmen in high school. This involves a planned and deliberate process of increasingly sharing power with your child. Ideally this begins in the pubescent years, but it really must shift into high gear so that by the time your child (and or their friends) are driving their own cars your children know that the power over their own conduct is in their own hands.

Counter to old school thought, this explicit power sharing that evolves into to power ownership by your child will not lead him/her to go crazy trying everything, but rather will give your child years to get comfortable with the idea that with personal power comes personal ownership of the outcomes. The worst possible approach is for the parent to try to keep all the power over their child’s conduct even while circumstances dictate that they no longer have the ability to enforce that power. In these cases the teenager does not have the ownership of the consequences of their actions because the parent sill claims that right. This leads the teen to simply not care about the end results since they do not own that.

I recommend very few rules should be left in place by the time your teen is 16, and those rules fall into two categories.

First house rules. In our case we have always had a no underage drinking by visitors rule in our house. We did not tell our kids they were not allowed to drink, but rather we voiced concern about underage drinking and only banned it in our house. The same is true for language, we flat out banned abusive and overly crude language in the house, though we made it clear that they can choose to talk how they want elsewhere. These house rules actually empower teens to let them know that we as the parents know exactly where our authority ends and where their responsibility begins.

The other set of rules are negotiated. A family, like any group is a community and one of the important things to understand is that communities exist via agreed upon standards of behavior. Outside a very small group of house rules, all other behavioral expectations are negotiated. A common point of conflict between teens and parents is curfew. I believe it is a mistake to have a fixed time to demand the kids be home, especially in the age of cell phones. A better approach is to share an ethos of mutual respect and concern. In our case the agreement was all family members who would be out late would tell the others when to expect them to be home. The funny consequence of this approach is that to this day our 20 year old wants to know where we are going and when we will be home. We oblige him and he in turn does not feel put upon when we ask the same of him. This kind of mutual respect gives us the room to still influence his decisions without impinging on his sense so self-efficacy.

Increasingly there is a tendency for parents to relinquish their authority without cultivating a mentor relationship. This shows itself in the absent parent who simply drops out of their teenager’s life entirely and in the parent (usually a mother) who wants to become simply their child’s buddy. This approach can be just as problematic as that of being overly controlling. Your teens are not yet adults. They still need guidance and a backstop when things get out of control. The trick is that they want the right to have their independence most of the time but still have a safety net when they want it.

That is where the mentor comes in. As mentor you continue to be a role model. And unlike when they were young, your children will see, and point out, any inconsistencies between what you say and what you do. Their newly developed cognitive skills allow them to realize their parents have flaws in their persona of all knowing provider. It hurts when your kids point out that they see inconsistencies between what you say and what you do. As a mentor we must own our failures as well as our strengths and role model that acceptance as well as the ideals we profess.

Finally as a mentor you must know that your mentees (your kids) will do in excess many of the things you do in moderation. This is true in your sexual behavior as well as in other areas of life. You will need to think carefully about how and when you discuss or display your sexual behavior. A little role modeling goes a long way and many teens will become more uncomfortable with your sexual life as their sex life begins to blossom. So, just as if you were a professional mentor, you need to carefully choose what to expose and how to expose it. It is not uncommon that the discomfort with parental sexuality will take an arc from normalized when they are pre-pubescent to increasingly disconcerting through puberty and early adolescence back to normalized and even admired in the late teens and early adult years. As their mentor, it is important that you respond to their discomfort in an honest and respectful manner. While not denying your sexual behaviors, it might be wise to make them less visible during the difficult transition years for your teens if you perceive it is making them “grossed out”.

As a mentor parent it is always that influence you are courting in your relationship with your children. Every child will have different needs and it is your job to know what those needs are and to be there to meet them when your child is ready to accept your help.

Your child will transform the family Sex-Positive habits about sexuality into their own, internalized, sexual values

I have from the very beginning of this series presented Sex-Positive Parenting as a way of life not simply a discreet set of behaviors. The sex positive parent began normalizing positive sexual behaviors and attitudes before their child’s birth even if the parent had to work diligently at doing so. As the sex positive parent’s children progressed through early and middle childhood they will come to see sex positive behaviors and attitudes as the normal way of life; however, they are still not yet cognitively developed enough to see beyond the idea of normal behavior to the underlying principles that that behavior expresses. This is not a problem in the childhood years because their world is still dominated by parental control and there are very few difficult choices that children must make on their own regarding sexuality.

However, by the middle teen years the choices and dilemmas of adult sexuality will come raining down on your children with increasing ferocity. It is not enough to have just had positive examples of their parents sex-positive behaviors, they must consolidate the thousands of discreet examples into broad, unifying principles. Much of this must be done on their own and you as parent must trust that you have provided enough sex positive examples over the years to help them at this difficult time. That is not to say that you no longer have a role. As I said in the prior section, your role is now of mentor and mentors look for opportunities to counsel their charges.

Beginning in the early teens parents need to begin avoiding talk of behavioral rules as much as possible and shift their focus onto principles. The safest and most productive way to do this is not to discuss their behavior but your own. Though many parents might find this difficult, it is important that you begin to open up the working of your own decision making process in everyday life. Though this discussion is about sex positive, realize that sexual positivity is just a part of a larger framework of moral and ethical living that you hope to pass on to your children. So, consider opportunities to discuss with your kids why you make a certain financial decision as much as why you decided to put a new nude portrait on your wall.

Realize that during their teen years your children will be watching you for any hypocrisy or inconsistency between what you say and do. Often times what appears to be sexual hypocrisy to your kids is in fact something quite different. For example, when our children were in their mid-teens we had several discussions as to why mom might proudly go topless at the beach but we never told grandmother about that. We explained that telling her about mom’s beach attire would greatly offend grandmother if she knew, so they were never to tell her about what mom wears at the beach (or what she wears to parties). The principle is that we have sexual freedom but that doesn’t give us the right to knowingly offend others. Similarly, our daughter worked as my photo assistant on a couple of nude photo shoots when she was in high school, but by then she had internalized that principle of respect for grandmother so she knew not to mention that when grandma was around.

As parent of a teenager you walk a fine line of being overly “preachy” and being under involved. The key to successfully helping your teenage children internalize the underlying sex-positive values is to keep from appearing to be trying to coerce or judge them. Forcing conformity is the surest way to prevent internalization. If you have set the sex-positive example over the prior 15 years, this process will be greatly expedited; however, to the extent you have let your own sex-negative past creep into your parenting over the years it will be significantly more difficult.

Your child will explore their sexuality at their own pace and avoid external pressures for early sexual debut or identity foreclosure

Young people today have come under the influence of two powerful but opposing sets of developmental pressures. On one hand the concept of childhood, as defined by the period of time before an individual takes personal responsibility for their own physical and financial needs has rapidly extended from 16 years old in the nineteenth century, to 18 in the twentieth century to well past 21 years old today. It is now common (even expected) for middle class young adults to be 22 and older still living by the largesse of their parents. This extended period of financial dependence extends the period where young people are exempt from the demands of self-subsistence up to a full decade after adolescence.

In contrast to this new and extended period of childlike behavior, young people are under increasing pressure to develop and express an adult sexual identity at ever younger ages. One of the pernicious impacts of critical queer theory is that a whole generation of teenagers (and pre-teens) are being told that they must find and then adhere to one of the myriad of sexual identities that are propagated primarily through identity groups and social media. Identity formation has been an area of psychological study for many decades. The term foreclosure is used to describe the bypassing of an extended period of growth and reflection before a young person settles on a personal identity. The classic example of identity foreclosure is the son of a farmer seeing himself as a farmer in his young teens and maintaining that identity without ever seriously considering other identity’s.

Sexual identity should be a process, just like political, religious and social identity. It is quite normal for young people to try on many types of identities through their middle teen years. Teens drive their parents crazy by often changing identities at a whim. And during the time a teen has embraced a specific identity they are often sure they have finally “found” who they really are. The problem parents have is they have a tendency to promote adherence to identities they like and challenge identities they do not like. This too is normal and to the extent parents seek to counter other social identity pressures that their kids are coming under, such behavior can be helpful. We must be aware that while teenagers are still under the influence of their parents, they are also under the influence of people and groups that have a vested interest in encouraging their teens to conform their identity to the group.

As a teen, in a matter of months, the fundamentalists Christians led me to foreclose my entire identity around their ideology. Social/political groups of all sorts fight for the identity of teenagers, many have a sexual component and some are primarily sexual. Make no mistake that the monosexual gay and lesbian community actively seek to pressure teens who have same-sex interests or experiences to foreclose as gay or lesbian. Teens more often than not, at some point, have some same-sex experience or attraction; however, they are far more likely to eventually identify as strait or bisexual than to identify as gay or lesbian, unless pressured into a premature foreclosure to a sexual identity. On the other hand, premature foreclosure as 100% straight is even more heavily pressured (especially for boys) which can lead to a whole host of later feelings of guilt and repression.

It is not a parent’s job to find their child’s sexual identity, but it is your job to push back on the pressures that promote early foreclosure. I have read a number of stories of parents who publicly label their children’s sexual identities well before the teen years. This is of course impossible since young children lack the cognitive, social or sexual development to understand such labels, let alone the impact of such pronouncements. Inevitably such parents are expressing their own political-sexual beliefs by projecting them upon their children. Parents who do so are causing irreparable harm to their children. In short, parents need to let kids be kids and let their adult sexual identity develop over time during those teenage years.

Discouraging pressure for early sexual debut is related to sexual identity, but not the same thing. At what age is a young person old enough to choose to engage in sexual activity?

The problem with that question is that I define “sexual activity” as everything from flirting to kissing to intercourse. So at what age is it appropriate for a child to kiss his or her crush? I remember distinctly when I was in 4th grade I had my first “girlfriend”. We had a good time throwing rocks into the local pond and talking and enjoying each other’s company. One day we decided we should start being physical. Being the mid-1970’s we had only had TV examples of how teens are supposed to do this. First we stood and pressed our lips together, and then we tried doing that laying on the ground. I even got on top of her. Soon we were quite board, so we went off and did something else and never tried again. Contrast that to the modern world. A few years ago a kindergarten teacher came to me frantic because out on the playground a little girl was found sucking a little boy’s penis. Though the two instances have very different implications, the root of the two behaviors were the same; young children were mimicking what they saw teenagers doing on the television (now the computer screen).

Of course for kindergartners or 4th graders to be having oral sex is inappropriate, but we live in a world were kids of this age see oral sex, but no one tells them “that is something grown-ups do, not children.” By the way that is what I had the teacher in the above case, tell the parents to explain that what they were doing was a grown-up thing to do, like driving a car or drinking beer, and children should never do it.

So back to the question, when is it appropriate for children to begin engaging in specific sexual activities? Sadly there are only a few fixed rules on this, but I will give some guidelines. Oddly, the political environment has begun to dictate things that are far more restrictive than is truly developmentally appropriate. Until the last few years I would have said I would not worry about a hug or kissing between elementary school kids; however, I think the risks of your child being charged with sexual harassment or worse has changed the equation.

Thus, I would say prior to middle school all physical displays of affection should be discouraged. In addition to the legal issues, the much lower age for onset of puberty means your 4th or 5th grader might be ready for sex, but they are not remotely emotionally or cognitively ready to make the kinds of decisions sex takes. I would approach the middle school years as a time to normalize sexual feelings and pre-sexual behaviors. Masturbation, phone sex, and even manual genital stimulation of partners are all appropriate for this age group. It is in this time that relationship-positive and body-realistic images of nudity and sexuality can be of great benefit to your child. Young adult reading with explicit sexual content is also an excellent pre-sexual activity. Sadly the schools no longer teach explicit sex education to middle schoolers (as they did when I was that age), so you as parents need to take on that role.

In the US the most common age of consent is 16; however, in most of those states there are close age exceptions or restrictions. Sixteen is when we trust kids to drive and work and a whole host of things. It is the age most teens become truly independent and I think it is a good age to tell your kids “please wait until you (and your partner) are 16 and are both fully desirous and ready to have intercourse”. The age of consent laws give parents a way to not condemn their child while also encouraging them to wait till they are a little more mature. In our case our daughter was very excited to tell Mom that she’d had sex the first time, but she was still a few months short of her 16th birthday. We told her we were supportive of her (and her use of a condom), but we also asked if she could refrain from doing so again until she was 16. She did. This is not to say all or most teens should have sex at 16; rather I set that as a floor. Many young people will not be ready for sex until they are out of their teens entirely (as in the case of our son).

There are a few ways to keep your kids from moving too fast sexually. The single most important is to be open about sexuality so that you can guide your children. The internet is a huge issue and I am not generally a fan of looking over your child’s shoulder; however, if you could find a way to verbally discourage them from looking at unrealistic body images, “commercial porn”, and negative/violent sexual images it would help you to engage into your child’s sex decision making. You don’t even have to direct your disapproval at them, but just a conversation in their presence about the difference between good erotica and exploitive unrealistic porn would go a long way toward validating their interests and viewing of sex-positive images without having to give them an “approved list” of sites. I’m not saying that would be a bad thing, but I don’t see many parents or teens being comfortable with that approach. The goal is to guide your child as they develop their sexual wants and by doing so you will be close enough to effectively delay things that are moving too fast.

Like, in our case, you don’t have complete control over their choices, but you want to help them make good plans and not get into sexual situations for which they are not yet ready. One of the most contentious issues in some families becomes one of an inappropriate age difference between the teenage partners. Despite a daughters physical development, at 14 she has no business dating a 17 year old. The power and cognitive differential is too great to have a balanced relationship. A developed bustline does not a developed brain make. Most states specifically have age of consent rules that codify no more than a 2 year difference between sexual partners if one is under 18. I would start teaching that as a standing principle long before it becomes an issue. This one thing pushes far too many young people to a sexual debut before they are ready.

By remaining supportive and proactive, it is not only possible but probable that you can help your child avoid the pitfalls of early foreclosure or too early sexual debut. Remember, at this age even a delay of a year in thes