When talking tough to teenagers is good

By Rev Dr Steve Emery-Wright

JENNY, a mother of three teenagers, recently expressed to me her fear that both her daughter and son seemed to be flirting with things that were harmful to their spiritual health. I asked her what made her think this. She said that both had come home with the smell of cigarettes on their clothing and both seemed to have very close special friends of the opposite sex.

After Jenny finished sharing her fears I asked if she had spoken to her children about her concerns and if so how her children had reacted. She looked aghast at me and said, “I haven’t raised the issue with them because it would make us all feel so uncomfortable.”

Her story may sound extreme but actually it’s more the norm. Recent Singaporean statistics reveal that in the past 12 months less than 20 per cent of teenagers spoke to any adult, let alone their parents, about sexual issues. When this topic was explored further by researchers, they discovered that both youth and parents avoid discussing difficult taboo topics like sexuality because they are afraid it will make everyone uncomfortable. It seems that some issues are avoided just because they are too tough to talk about.

What is even more worrying is that research from the US indicates that if parents call themselves evangelical and attend church regularly they are even less likely to have a conversation about human sexuality. If parents and young people have a conversation about sexuality it often takes the form of a confrontation that begins and ends with “don’t do it” until you get married.

There are several dangers of avoiding tough conversations. Parents often assume that because their children have sex education in school they know all about the mechanics and dangers. This may be true but sex education, however, goes far beyond the biological mechanics and dangers of sexually transmitted infections that they learn about in school. Sexuality, first and foremost, is about relationships and how we value ourselves, our partners, our families and our faith. These values are learned within the home.

Silence within the home in the area of sexuality may well leave a young person ignorant of the values that guide relational behaviour. The silence can also leave the teenagers with the vague feeling that their parents do not really care as long as their behaviour does not bring shame upon the family.

Avoiding talking openly with our teenagers about sexuality is at best potentially harmful to the development of a healthy sexuality and at worst irresponsible as we enter an era of the Internet as sex-educator. Thirty years ago avoiding the uneasy sexual conversations at home may not have been so harmful but now the Internet and global media are pumping “educational” messages that are contrary to the Christian values that enhance life and relationships.

Young males view images on the Internet that portray sexuality in false, destructive lights where women become objects of pleasure. Young men often indicate that one of the reasons they view Internet pornography is to “learn how it is done”. The vacuum of silence surrounding sexuality within the home is now being filled with these harmful voices that are teaching a false twisted sexuality and double standards between men and women.

The good news is that parents, contrary to popular opinion, remain the most influential force in the life of an adolescent – not friends or the media. Young people who indicate that they feel close to their parents and can talk to them are less likely to engage in sexual activity or at risk behaviours.

Mothers and fathers have the power – and, I would argue, the responsibility – to break any legacies of secrecy about sex. They have the power to help their children to resist sexual double standards, to instruct them about the beauty, the pleasures, and complexities of sex and human anatomy as well as pass on to them their own moral assertions about sexual boundaries.

Parents also have the power to model in their relationships the respect, love, tenderness and care that they would like to see their teenagers develop. As a parent of a teenage girl I find this a challenge but I know if I avoid the challenge, other potentially harmful voices will step in to fill my silence.

As a church we can resource and support one another and parents in three broad ways.

First, inform parents and congregations about the sexual pressures, thoughts and feelings bombarding their young people and how their young people are holding up under them.

Second, find ways of involving parents in their child’s sex education, instead of abdicating responsibility to other sources or to the youth programme of the church.

Third, encourage parents as they take steps, even baby steps, in discussing the tough talk of sex with their own teens.

Below are a few brief suggestions on how to achieve these three goals:

  • Inform parents of what the youth group is teaching about boy-girl relationships with conversation questions provided to both the parents and teenagers;
  • Host a parent seminar: “Talking with Your Teens about Sex”;
  • Organise a parent panel on marriage and sexuality where the teenagers get to anonymously ask the questions;
  • Recommend to parents TV shows and magazines that reflect what their teens deal with sexually; and
  • Send out encouraging anonymous stories from students about how their parents have helped them deal with and understand sex.

The Rev Dr Steve Emery-Wright is a Lecturer in Youth Ministry at Trinity Theological College.