Supporting Healthy Teen & Childhood Sexuality

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Two of my upcoming lectures involve childhood sexuality. In March I’m speaking to a group of Catholic high school parents, and in April I’ll be training a few hundred family therapists in Arizona.

Not to be overly sentimental, but doing this is a privilege. Every time I’m asked, there’s a group of people trusting me with their reputations, or even their jobs. It’s a responsibility I take seriously.

Here are some of the key points I’ll be making in both talks:
* Healthy sexual expression in children is varied, messy, a bit unpredictable, and entwined with a kid’s culture, psychology, and biography—just like in adults.
* When it comes to childhood sexuality, adults have two primary tasks:
a) to manage our own emotions about it, and
b) to support young people in finding healthy ways to understand and express themselves.
* Young people now live online, so we have to address their online experiences and expression. Most adults probably need a few technology lessons from the kids they want to support.
* An approach centered on fear and danger, or shame and guilt, won’t equip young people for the decision-making challenges they will face.

When I speak about the healthy sexuality of children and teens, I focus as much on parents as I do on kids. Parents (and other caring adults) have so much to offer young people: explaining what’s happening to their bodies, telling them what to expect, calming their anxieties about not being normal, validating the confusing complexity of their feelings, and helping young people be a little less grim about the whole thing.

One of the greatest gifts that adults can give young people around sexuality is talking about how males and females have a lot in common. This is a different approach than the more typical “OK, here’s what girls want” or “This is what boys are thinking.” While such a gender-stereotypical approach may calm both kids and parents in the short term, in the long term it undermines empathy and heightens performance anxiety.

We all want our kids to see others as humans first, and their gender (and everything else) second; rather than seeing half the population as alien or “other,” we should encourage our kids to see females and males (and other gender identities) as more similar than different.

This isn’t mere devotion to political correctness. Rather, it makes the answers to many kids’ questions more down-to-earth and even obvious. What should I say or do with that special person over there? Well, how would you like to be treated? How would you treat them if they were your friend instead of part of an alien group?

Of course, most adults still struggle with trying to figure out “men” or “women.” So it’s no surprise that they encourage young people to see the world as populated by two “opposite sexes” who, well, come from different planets.

Young people and healthy sexuality? Oh yes, we need to cover menstruation, wet dreams, conception and contraception, kissing, privacy, morality, teasing, porn, abstinence, alcohol and pot, arousal and desire. And more.

But most centrally, we need to remind young people that those females or those males who seem so alien are actual people. And that every body part we see, whether we find it attractive or unattractive, is attached to an actual person—so we need to behave accordingly.

And that real sex does not FEEL like porn LOOKS.

* * *

For more on this subject, see my DVDs “Talking with our kids about sex” and “Enhancing porn literacy in young people.”

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