A Parent’s Guide
Episode 4: Side 2B Teenage Sexuality & Sexting
Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the fifth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah and her friend Courtney are working on a school project when Courtney tries to kiss her.
Hannah isn’t interested though she isn’t upset either. Tyler takes a blurry picture of the kiss (while peeking in Hannah’s bedroom window) and posts it on social media. Everyone is wondering who is in the picture. Clay is becoming increasingly disturbed by how people treated Hannah. The issues raised by this episode include teenager’s developing sexual urges and sharing photos online, i.e., sexting.
When is the last time you had a talk with your adolescent about sex, sexuality and intimacy? If you are like most parents, the answer is years to never. The bubbling cauldron of hormones and desire that is adolescent sexuality will overwhelm the rational thinking of every teen. Your kid will need help understanding what is going on and what to do about it.
When you add the pervasiveness of and easy access to pornography, your son (the vast majority of porn users are males) and your daughter (influenced by porn culture and by boys who are socialized by pornography) can end up with an
uninformed and distorted view of everything about sexual intimacy while feeling like they’ve seen it all.
What’s a parent to do?
Do your homework. If you haven’t read up on sex, sexuality and sexual intimacy then get a good book and, dare I say, bone up on it? (See the resources list at the end of this section.)
Make time. Don’t count on the perfect moment showing up. You will have to create your own opportunity. Just make sure you choose a time when you won’t be interrupted and a place that will afford some privacy.
Wade right in. “We need to talk.” “I want to talk to you about some important things . . .” Make sure you include dating and intimacy, not just sex, as a part of the talk. And, let them know this won’t be the last conversation. (And make sure it isn’t.)
Ask questions before giving answers. Asking questions is a gentle way to enter into discussions about what your kid is thinking and what they know. “Have you ever thought about . . .” “What do you know about . . .” “When do you think is the right time for . . .” Since the topic is emotionally charged, don’t assume that an initial lack of response means they aren’t going to answer. Watch and wait before you forge ahead with answers.
Validate before you respond. Be sure to express your respect for their opinions and to communicate your admiration for answers that are values-based. (“I am really glad that you are thinking about what you consider to be morally right and are taking other people’s feelings into account.”) Acknowledge how complicated and confusing it can be to sort out this stuff.
Talk about values. Being human is defined by basing your actions on a set of morals or values. To talk about relationships is to talk about right and wrong: the right and wrong way to treat others, the right and wrong way to allow others to treat you, right and wrong actions. Have your kid talk about how their moral code will guide their actions in a relationship (and not just about sex).
Anticipate. You can help your teenager prepare for dealing with things they will face in an intimate relationship. Think in terms of three categories: lust, romantic love and commitment. These categories can give you a way to talk about keeping a relationship in perspective: “Yeah, he gets you all hot and bothered (lust).” “Who knows whether it will end up being real love (romantic love).” “It takes more than just love to have a relationship that will really last (commitment).”
Talk about the important qualities of each in a healthy relationship.
Set limits. Be clear about your limits regarding relationships and sexual intimacy. This will include rules for dating: when, where, what age and with whom. It will also be important to have an agreement about how your kid will keep you informed about their relationships, especially when they are becoming serious.
Don’t push. Since you are going to have many talks about relationships and sex, don’t try to cover everything in one sitting. Look for signs of overload such as sobbing (either you or them). Remember, there will be another time.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Make sure you have multiple conversations; at least once a year. It will get easier upon repetition and as your teen ages.
Resources. There are several chapters in my parenting book Raising Teens in the 21st Century on dating with a more elaborate discussion of each of the points reviewed above. There are also a number of resources that are specifically devoted to dealing with teenage sex and sexuality.
The ubiquitous cell phone, a built in camera, instant Internet access, social media apps, pervasive pornography and teenage hormones all add up to sexting (i.e., nude images, sexually suggestive images or sexually explicit verbal texting) being the new, new thing parents have to figure out how to deal with as they raise their 21st century teens.
Your teen is being inundated with stories of this happening. The most concerning form is, of course, trading nude images of teenage bodies. But there is also the risqué, the titillating, the sexualized, the erotic; all of which can result is some of the same complicated and conflicting pressures faced by teens.
They are being overtly encouraged (i.e., dared and pressured) to do it. And, due to the pervasive exposure of the large majority of teenage boys to pornography, the pornification of images that pervade our culture and the changing views about modesty and what should be personal and private, the idea of sending pictures of your body across the ether is treated as no big deal by teens (because they have become cynical, e.g., see previous blog on Hope).
What’s a parent to do?
There are a couple of general rules for approaching the issue of sexting. First, have a talk with them about what you think about sexting. This should be a part of the larger discussion about what are acceptable and unacceptable uses of devices, social media and communication across the Internet.
Have a long talk about sex and sexuality, flirting and intimacy. Then talk about the law because naked images of a minor on your child’s electronic devices (even if your child takes the image of themselves), sharing them electronically or receiving them is producing, distributing and possessing child pornography. It’s a felony. Even clothed but highly sexualized images can be considered child pornography in some jurisdictions.
If you have discovered that your kid is sending inappropriate or, worse, naked, images out into the world, it is time to shut everything down while you deal with all the implications. Confiscate all devices. The steps for dealing with this situation are more complicated because of the potential legal implications of the need to report a crime. You can find detailed information about how to talk to your kid about sexting and how to deal with sexting if you discover your kid is doing it in my booklet Sexting: Parenting Before, During and After.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
Episode 5: Respecting boundaries and gay-shaming. The next blog is inspired by episode 5 (which is tape 3A) and gives you some information about how to talk to your teen about personal boundaries and gay-shaming.
Dr. Wellborn is an adolescent and family psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century. Find out more about him by visiting his website at www.drjameswellborn.com