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Parents and Abstinence in Teens

Of all the discussions you must have with your teens, talking to them about sexuality probably ranks as awkward-scenario-number-one. Many parents aren't sure how to approach the subject with their teenagers or, if they do approach it, they might do so ineffectively. Others avoid the subject entirely, leaving their kids to figure it out on their own. Today's teenagers are faced with a barrage of sexual imagery on television, on the Internet and in their music, and they can access risqué content with the click of a mouse. As such, teaching your children about the value and importance of abstinence has become more challenging than ever before -- but it can be done.

Be Prepared

By the time your child reaches her tween years, it may be time to have "the talk," says Erin Madigan Stathis, a Mass.-based licensed mental health counselor who specializes in adolescents. "10 to 12 years old or younger is a time when kids are talking about this with friends," she says. "Believe it. The more facts they have, the better." Because of the embarrassment factor, parents may put the discussion off for fear of not knowing how to get started, but rest assured, you are not alone. "Some parents may think they have to be perfect or their kids will end up in therapy trying to undo the horrible job they did talking about sex. Wrong!" says Stathis. "Remind yourself that there's nothing wrong with feeling awkward about talking to your teens about sex." She suggests that parents prepare by writing down the three most embarrassing questions that your child could possibly ask, along with your answers. If they end up asking a question that you're not prepared to answer, feel free to say, "I'll get back to you on that one." "Don't let awkwardness stop you," she says. "If they notice your awkwardness, it may just show them that their own awkwardness is normal, acceptable and no reason to shy away from the subject."

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Approaching Your Teen

Yes, it's true that talking to your teenagers about abstinence can be as much fun as getting a flu shot. Despite this, parents should consider discussions about abstinence as a way to help their children handle modern society's constant barrage of sexual images and overtones. Centers for Disease Control statistics show that nearly 50 percent of high-school students are having sexual intercourse, and about a third are not using any form of birth control. As for the impact of television on impressionable viewers? Well, the National Institutes of Health reports that the number of sexual interactions on television has increased 270 percent since 1976. "It's out there, so we can't ignore it," says Stathis. "Try to use it. Watching a movie together about teen relationships can be a great conversation starter. It can be much easier for teens to discuss the characters rather than their own personal circumstances. It may feel safer to them and can give you some great insight." Stathis suggests watching your daughter's favorite movie with her and discussing who she thinks is most like her and why, as well as how the character thinks about relationships and sex. "If the character is sexually active, ask why your teen guesses the character made that decision," she says. "Did it make the boy like her more? Did she gain respect? How does this relate to self-respect?"

Parental Influence

As a parent, you're your child's biggest influence. Remember how, when she was learning to talk, your tot used to mimic the way you talk on the phone, put on your makeup, even cook and clean? As her parent, you're your child's first teacher, and your influence doesn't suddenly lose its effectiveness or impression once your child turns 13. In fact, when it comes to abstinence, your influence will be essential in helping your kid navigate her murky teenage years, which are fraught with peer pressure and negative societal influences. "Remember, sexual desire is normal and sex is not bad," says Stathis. "At some point in life, a healthy sexual relationship is going to be appropriate and a big part of a happy relationship and life. You want your teen to be able to have a healthy attitude toward sex when the timing is right. Thinking having sex or sexual desire makes you a bad person can have negative consequences." As such, she says, it's essential that parents "stick to the facts" when discussing abstinence and stay away from moral judgments. When discussing sexually transmitted diseases, for instance, you want to focus on treatments and symptoms, and avoid judgmental statements such as "STDs happen to bad people," as your teen may become defensive and shut down. "Use the real names for body parts, too. Trust me, they'll hear them other places," she says.

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Keep the Conversation Going

Teaching your child about abstinence is not a one-time conversation. The path from teenager to adulthood can be convoluted and tortuous, and despite the eye rolls and sighs, your teenager needs your guiding hand. "You have to keep the lines of communication open and create an environment where your teen won't feel judged by questions about sex or sexual desires," says Stathis. "A mom's influence is only effective if it is accepted by your teen. Feeling safe to ask awkward questions, unconditional acceptance and lack of judgment are essential."

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