Scarleteen Confidential: The Big Five
If you take nothing else away from Scarleteen Confidential, we feel these five things are the real guiding principles when it comes to parenting well with sex and sexuality. You will hear echoes of them in all of the pieces we publish in these pieces, and if you've read other comprehensive parenting guides, they're probably also already familiar to you. Young people express a desire for all of these things in our interactions with them when they talk about their family dynamics and what they want in their relationships and interactions with parents.
1) The sexuality, sexual relationships or sexual life of your child are about them and for them, not you.
By all means, all of this will always be influenced by what you have taught and modeled, and do teach and model, about sex, sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout their lives so far, as well as related issues like self-esteem and body image, intimacy, boundary-setting and consent, and self-care and care for others. But their sexuality or sexual identity, their sexual choices, interactions and relationships are theirs, and are primarily about them. They're not a reflection of you, or something for you to try and manage, control or dictate.
Their sexuality and sexual choices are based primarily in who they are, and what they want and feel best about, rather than who you are, and what you may want, either for yourself or for them.
As they develop, grow and explore sexually or romantically, there may be areas where you feel you can give support, help or input, and when that's something they also want from you, that's wonderful. You may also experience things around their sexuality or sexual choices you feel may be due to mistakes you or another family member made, things you never communicated, or things you did or were part of that you feel were negative influences, and want to try and fix that. For example, maybe for part of their life you were in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, didn't model positive body image, self-esteem or assertiveness, or you just totally freaked out when they started asking about sex or disclosed they'd been sexual with someone else to you. Or maybe you feel they're mimicking your own sexual choices, and that mirror is not one you're feeling good about.
We'll say it a lot here, and again right now: parents are people, and people are imperfect. That not only is okay, it needs to be okay, because you can't be perfect. You can only be as human as anyone is, and do your best at any given time as a parent. You can't unring any bells you've already rung when it comes to how you've parented with this, inclusing anywhere you feel you've messed up. But you can honestly and humbly acknowledge and own anything you feel you did, said or were part of that you feel influenced them in a way that concerns you, and talk about that without trying to instantly change them or their choices. Then you let them take that where they will: you can probably think about some not-so-awesome stuff that came from your family that you worked out and through for yourself over time in your life, maybe even around sex or sexuality. If so, you know that just takes time, and often personal space and life lived separate from family. When a family acknowledges missteps, then just lets everyone do what they will with that acknowledgement, it's pretty easy to right in the way someone decides to and to makes room for, in managing their life.
Remember, young people are autonomous beings in their own right, who are ideally, and hopefully with your support, growing to be more independent each day. Their choices and feelings are theirs, and they are who they will impact most. So while you can support them and try to help them, try to do so with the given that what they do ultimately reflects them as a person, not you. And if you stay consistent in that aim with them -- making real effort, in all your talks and interactions around their sexuality and sexual lives, to let them have ownership and control, rather than trying to take it in any way for yourself, or make it about you, not them -- it's going to be a lot easier to stay connected around this, and to keep channels of communication open, rather than having a young person push you away or shut the door because you're just not leaving enough room for them to be separate from you, and for their sexualities to feel like theirs.
2) Remind them, often, that you love and accept them.
It's important for children, adolescents and emerging adults to feel loved, supported and accepted by their parents. That doesn't mean you can't disagree on things (or that you won't), and it doesn't mean you can't set expectations, limits and boundaries with them. What it does mean is that, even if things get scary, or if they make a choice that's not what you wanted or if they mess up, they always will know that their mistakes won't ever mean you stop loving them, and they don't have to worry that they'll lose your support.
We see a lot of teens who won't approach the adults in their life for help when they really need it because they're afraid that something about the situation will cause them to stop loving or accepting them, and often have had experiences with their families that have validated that concern. Make it as explicit as you can to them that that just won't happen, even if you're ever not feeling so great about their choices, or have your own feelings to work through when it comes to their sexuality or sexual lives. Too, for teens facing stressful events, one of the major factors that effects how they respond to and recover from those moments is how supported they feel. Whether they're transgender or queer and trying to get their identity recognized by their school, dealing with a mental health issue, or managing an unintended pregnancy, they will usually want your support, and most often will really need it.
Young people learning to manage their sexualities and sexual lives have a much easier time doing so well, and in ways they feel really good about, when they have the support of their families.
3) Be mindful of what you say and do.
I know it may not feel like it sometimes, but adolescents do listen to you. So, be careful of any sort of hypocrisy or double standards you might participate in. Young people tend to smell a parental double-standard a mile away, and usually also -- validly, as we all should with people who don't walk their talk -- lose respect for anyone employing double standards, or being hypocritical in their interactions with them. If they notice that you tend to say one thing but do or show them another, that can lead to big rifts in the relationship between you, and make opinions or directions less valid and less respected.
You know for yourself that your family has been one of the primary, if not the primary, shapers of how you interact with and understand the world. Whether they're trying to model themselves after you, or move as far away from how you are as possible, or, ideally, just figure out who they are and grow into that person, you are and have been a strong force in all of who they are.
They notice what you say and do, even when you don't, and internalize it. If, say, you make comments about how teens who get pregnant are irresponsible and shameful, they will be reluctant to come to you if they're having a pregnancy scare, even if, when you said that, it wasn't reflective of how you'd treat that situation with them. Alternately, if they hear you commenting on how you hope the people on Teen Mom have supportive, caring parents who are there for them, because you think that's the right way to respond in that situation, they'll get the message that should they ever find themselves in that situation, you're a safe harbor.
4) Treat their feelings as legitimate, real and whole.
Adults have a tendency to view the feelings of teenagers as unreal, fleeting, exaggerated or half-baked, even though when they were young people themselves, they experienced and felt hurt and disrespected by this treatment from adults. This is the core of adultism, and it's just as noxious as any other kind of -ism is.
For instance, there's the popular adult sentiment that when people are young, they can't possibly know what love is or feels like (because apparently love is only real for older adults, which also suggests young people can't love their parents, either!), or that whatever feelings of love they are having are part of a phase they will outgrow, and whatever comes after, once they're adults, will be more real. It's a Velveteen Rabbit setup, where only someone external, with powers they don't have, can make them real.
This mindset is unhelpful for a few reasons. Firstly, it's deeply patronizing and dismissive. Think back to when you were a young person and someone told you that you'd grow out of what you were feeling or that you didn't know jack about your own feelings. Odds are, you felt like you were being talked down to (because you were).
This mindset also ignores the fact that most people's desires and feelings are fluid and malleable throughout life, no more or less valid or real at any age: feelings are always real, even if, at any given time, we may identify them as one thing and then, in hindsight, see them as something else. Changing your mind or the way you think about or understand your feelings is not unique to adolescents. Too, it dismisses the fact that, even if the emotions or our ideas about them are changeable, they are still very, very real to the person having them. Yes, it's true that most people do not end up spending their life with someone they meet in high school. But that doesn't make what teens feel for each other during that time any less genuine or valid.
We frequently hear from young people in tough situations, where big feelings or feelings of upset are warranted, who express feeling that they must be overreacting or otherwise behaving like a moody or irrational teenager, because that's been such a pervasive message for them. They've often been conditioned to believe that if they feel anything too strongly, clearly they are being foolish. By validating their emotions, you can help your child feel as though their emotions do matter, which in turn can make them more willing to advocate for themselves and pay attention to their feelings when they make their choices, rather than feeling like they should listen more to others than themselves.
5) Educate Yourself.
No one is born knowing about sex and relationships, becomes an adult and is magically then knowledgeable by virtue of an 18th birthday, or knows all there is to know about any of this as a parent just because they are a parent. For most of us, there are also often things we take as truths about sex that we've never even really pulled out and examined, or truths for us we presume to be universal, but which are only subjective and based in our personal experiences.
One of the things that makes working in sexuality and sexual health so interesting is that the information is constantly changing and growing, especially when you consider that scientific study of sexuality is still so new. But that also means having to put effort into keeping up with all of the information: some information we got, even from sound sources, about sex, sexuality, sexual health and relationships 20, 30 or more years ago won't be accurate now. And people who don't work in this field usually aren't staying current with current information and new approaches, so it's mighty easy for even the most well-meaning adult talking to a young person about any of this to tell them things that are only based in anecdote (and don't square with broad study and information), out of date, or flat out wrong.
If you have a teen asking questions about sex and you're realizing you don't have all the answers, don't panic and, by all means, don't fake it. Instead, seek out and find resources that can answer questions in an accessible and accurate way. Learn to love the phrase "I don't know, but lets see if we can find out." Even just admitting that you don't have all the answers about sex can help your child realize that they are not weird or stupid for not knowing themselves, and send a clear message that they don't have to -- and likely can't -- know it all about sex, and that anyone who suggests they do probably isn't being very honest. Researching together can help them learn to research tricky things like health information well, where sound sources and accurate information are so important.
Do some reading about young people and sexuality that comes from well-researched and sound sources: there is a lot of false or exaggerated information floating around, or information based in moral agendas or panics that often misrepresents even accurate information to fit the agenda at hand. Reading the good stuff will help you feel calmer about your growing child, and more confident in your ability to parent well with sex and sexuality. Extra bonus: continuing your own sexual education, benefits your own sexuality and sexual life, too.
This is part of our series for parents or guardians. To find out more about the series click here. For our top five guiding principles for parents or guardians click here; for a list of resources, click here. To see all posts in the series, click the Scarleteen Confidential tag above, or follow the series on Tumblr at scarleteenconfidential.tumblr.com.