As in marriages, when it comes to parent-child relationships, sex is a very sensitive topic. With tweens, who range in age from 9 to 12 and are sandwiched between children and teens, the three most sensitive topics from my 20-plus years of working with them are sex, drugs and friendships. While there is a lot to be said about each of these topics, sex is perhaps the most discussed. And in light of a recent study linking exposure of sexual content in movies to influencing sexual behavior among adolescents, parents need to know how to approach the subject with their children. So read on, because not talking about sex won't make it not happen.
Why Parents Are Reluctant to Talk to Tweens About Sex
It is not a surprise that parents are anxious about talking to their tweens about sex. After all, who really wants to imagine their child in that sort of physical entanglement? Nonetheless, as parents, we need to get past our anxiety and talk about sex, because kids are doing it or thinking about it—yes, even at these tender ages.
As parents, we falsely believe that if we don't talk about sex, our kids won't be thinking about it or doing it. That's understandable. Parents are naturally very protective of their children and have a hard time making the adjustment from dealing with little kids to the 9- to 12-year-olds who are pre-pubertal or entering puberty. In an effort to help parents talk to their tweens, here are some questions they are likely to ask you. These are questions that tweens have told me they are wondering about and questions that parents have been unsure of how to answer.
The younger set—that is, the 9- and 10-year-olds—are usually asking about terms they have overheard in school, on the bus and often from their peers' older siblings. They will ask about slang terms for sex and what they mean. You are likely to find yourself being asked about intercourse and oral sex in the tween vernacular, and you may be asked why people do those kinds of things.
With the tweens who are a little older (ages 11 to 12), they are more likely to pose their questions and curiosities as statements about what is going on among their age group. They may come home from a party and mention that there was oral sex or some other form of sexual play going on. Even though they are making comments—not asking questions—don't misunderstand. They want to talk to you about their feelings, confusion and your thoughts. Otherwise, they wouldn't be reporting anything. Before I make suggestions about how to talk to kids about sexuality, it's important to understand the current sexual/relationship culture that they are either already involved in or are entering into.
The Hook-up Culture
Tweens are currently part of a group of kids involved in what is referred to as the "hook-up" or "friends with benefits" culture. These "hook-ups," I am told by the tweens with whom I work, refer to no-strings-attached physical relationships that can range from kissing to intercourse. The goal is for the kids to have fun but to not get emotionally attached. This is a sad state of affairs because, as you can imagine, it is inevitable that at least one of the kids involved in the hook-up will have more than just skin in the game.
I worry about this hook-up culture, because it doesn't acknowledge the heart-body-mind connection. When anyone of any age gets involved physically, there is often an emotional and cerebral component as well. And based on what tweens tell me in group settings and in the confines of my office, many (sorry to say) are experimenting with oral sex because they feel that it is less intimate than intercourse.
Many people have asked me what's in it for the girls, who are usually performing oral sex on the boys during these encounters. There are at least three answers. 1) The girls get to remain technical virgins. 2) The girls are testing the power of their sexuality. 3) There is a contagion effect so that if a girl's friends are talking about oral sex, she too may want to fit in. My biggest concern is that parents are educating their kids about the mechanics of sex and STDs, but less about the emotional connection that one feels when getting involved physically.
What are Parents to Do? And How Should They Answer Questions?
I suggest that parents answer the questions their kids are asking and give them the answers they are developmentally able to handle. By all means, educate your tweens about the mechanics of sex and STDs, but also discuss the importance of their tender feelings as they cross into the physical realm of relationships. Remind both your boys and your girls that physical relationships can be experienced emotionally as well, and, yes, their feelings may get hurt. During the conversation, check in with them to see if you are giving them too much or too little information, and ask if they have more questions.
Keep in mind that kids tend to disengage when they sense that a parent is becoming anxious and frantic, so do your best to keep your cool and feel honored that your child trusts you enough to talk to you.
The media also provides us with several opportunities to talk to our kids about sex. You may want to watch an episode of Teen Moms or a similar show to get the dialogue going. You will have the opportunity to ask your child her thoughts and discuss your own values while talking about someone else.
Finally, remember that both boys and girls are emotionally vulnerable. Like teen boys, tween boys are more than simply sex-crazed kids. In fact, according to studies conducted by psychologists who are also researchers, boys show signs of stronger attachment than girls. If your 9- to 12-year-old opens up about sex and then shuts down, I suggest you simply tell him that you are available to talk about his questions at another time, when he is ready. Nothing is gained by coercing kids into having a discussion that they are not ready for. It's important to respect the cues they are sending.