Do you remember the first time you had sex? One of our listeners pointed out that it's one of those moments that stays with us forever, so it makes sense to ensure that it's a positive experience.
The problem with underage sex is that it's illegal, so counselling our teens on the topic beyond saying 'it's illegal' or 'not in my house' requires some deep thought and sensitivity. It's hard to get advice from other parents because it always seems to provoke a lot of judgment, so when our listener asked for help in navigating this topic I knew it was one for us.
In truth, most parents would secretly admit that they're never really ready for dealing with our kids having sex; particularly when they start taking an interest below the age when it's legal.
So what should we be thinking, and what should we be saying to our young teens?
Firstly, in the research I read the majority of teens aged 17 haven't had sex. It's important that your teenager realises that's the norm, because we humans have a herd instinct and teenagers are particularly worried about fitting in or being left behind.
One of the best quotes I read in my research is
‘Becoming a sexually healthy adult is a developmental task of adolescence.’
When we talk about it in terms of development and a task then we begin to think about our role in guiding them a little more clearly. Teenagers don't just hit 16 and suddenly wake up to their sexuality. (That said, Susie and I have both definitely noticed a change in maturity around that age.) So it's not something we should talk about only once.
We need to have regular chats around the key issues throughout their adolescence. Use stories you've seen in the paper to start discussions, ask about their friends in a non-judgmental way. Remember, they are highly sensitive to your opinions and will be testing all the time to see if they can trust you with their own problems. We want our teens to feel that they can come to us for solid, well-considered advice at any time; not be forced to get their advice from other inexperienced teens.
What was very clear from my research is that the hard line of sexual development is considered to be under 13. In the UK, the advice given to health care workers is that nobody below that age is capable of consenting to sexual relations and it should be considered a child protection/abuse issue.
The biggest red flag is an imbalance of power; in whatever form that takes. If there's a difference in age, sexual experience, power of any sort, then we parents need to step in, explain the issue, and draw clear boundaries to protect our teen.
That aside, I found that the key points to raise with your teens are:
Above the age of 13, if your teen is mature, and able to clearly understand the issues and discuss their reasoning, they may be ready to engage in the next stage. So age is a guide, but that's all. In truth, we all know that there are some adults who still struggle with the concepts mentioned above.
The most important thing to remember is that we are the parents. We can decide whether we are comfortable with them dating, or developing any relationship further. We are perfectly within our rights to put boundaries in place to protect our teens and the more we discuss our reasoning, the less likely they are to do things we consider inappropriate. We should also try to reach out to the parent of the other teen to get a sense of how they feel.
Most of all, the stakes when it comes to sex are so much higher. Pregnancy is life-changing, sexually transmitted diseases can also be life-changing, and the mental and emotional shift that sex can trigger shouldn't be underestimated.
Giving our teens a full understanding of how complex sexuality can be involves so much more than focusing on the act; it's about discussing love, relationships, power, fun, and sharing. We need to be ready to talk about how to grow relationships in their entirety - to counteract the damage done by the porn industry - so that our teens can see sex in the context of human warmth and experience rather than something people do to each other.