By Barb Steinberg, LMSW
At a time when going shopping for girls’ clothes is a jaw-dropping experience (There is no way she is going out of the house wearing that, you find yourself thinking), listening to the radio during carpool becomes a teachable moment and when you realize that the shows she is watching in no way resemble the now-seemingly innocuous programs you grew up with (Cosby Show, anyone?), parenting a tween/teen daughter is no easy task.
As harrowing as these experiences may seem, my work with tween/teen girls and their families over the past twenty years has shown me that there is always room for celebration. In one area, in particular, we have had some remarkable gains. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the teen pregnancy rate in this country between 1990 and 2008 has declined for teens in all age groups. In fact, it has plummeted 40% and is now at a historic low.
Experts have several theories on what is happening, but I’d like to think that it’s because we are doing a better job at engaging our girls in meaningful conversation around relationships, intimacy and sex. You might be surprised to learn that teens themselves say that parents most influence their decisions about sex. So if you think peers, popular culture, teachers and educators hold the most sway, you are wrong. Don’t let the eye rolling, the sighs and the silence confuse you: overwhelmingly, teens say they would welcome more conversations with their parents about sex and avoiding teen pregnancy. They need us to initiate those conversations.
This Wednesday, May 1st is the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, an annual effort by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy to focus the attention of teens on the importance of avoiding too-early pregnancy and parenthood. Although we have made many gains in getting the message across to our girls about the benefits of delaying sexual activity, 40% of our kids will have sex before talking to their parents about condom use, birth control and STDs. With that in mind, I want to encourage you to become an askable adult.
What, exactly, is an askable adult? An askable adult is someone who girls (and boys) feel comfortable talking to about any and all subjects. Children know an askable adult will listen thoughtfully, won’t rush to judgement and will respect their privacy. What should you keep in mind if you want your girls (and boys) to feel comfortable approaching you with questions and concerns about relationships, sex and intimacy?
Be available. As you might expect, it’s unlikely that your child will ask you about the birds and the bees as you are rushing from one activity to the next. Make sure you spend unscheduled time together so that you have the time and space to discuss a subject that — let’s be honest — both adults and kids can find difficult to talk about. That means taking your eyes off the texts/emails and suggesting a parent-daughter walk, a few minutes outside after dinner to throw the Frisbee or a “date” to get a cherry limeade.
Be honest. This doesn’t mean that as a parent you have to bare your soul about your sex life, but it does mean that you have the permission to acknowledge your discomfort around the issue and why she might feel the same. It also means you don’t have to know all the answers. In some cases, you can find the answers together; in doing so, you can show her the places she can find accurate information about sex online.
Have a discussion with your partner: perhaps he or she will be the “go-to” parent about sex. Identify two adults in her life and have a conversation with those individuals about whether they would be comfortable answering her questions, so that if you aren’t available or if your daughter feels uncomfortable approaching you, she has someone who has her best interest in mind.
Be her sounding board. Part of being a parent is raising our daughters to be independent and free thinkers. Many girls never start a conversation about dating with their parents, so be ready to bring up the subject. Chances are that in between the demands of school, friends, extracurricular activities and other demands on her time, she hasn’t sat down and thought long and hard about questions like:
How will I know if I’m in love?
When will I know when I’m ready to have sex?
How do I tell my girl or boyfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him/her or hurting his/her feelings?
What exactly will I say when we are in the “heat of the moment” and I don’t want to have sex?
Do you know how she would answer these questions? If not, spend some time this month (and continue the conversation) asking her these kinds of questions, and see her grow as she answers them. If at first she bristles at answering these questions, try asking what her friends would do. Remember, it’s not just “the talk” anymore — the more chances you have to engage her, the more she can incorporate all the thoughts and feelings she has swimming around in that head of hers into solid values.
The prospect of your daughter having sex can be a scary one, but with you listening to her, asking her self-reflective questions and gently advising her, she will be equipped with the inner strength to speak up for herself and do what’s right for her heart and her body.
Barb Steinberg, LMSW is a teen life coach and workshop facilitator who transforms the lives of adolescent girls and the adults who care about them. In addition, she produced a unique, all-girl documentary-style educational DVD, The Wisdom of Girls: Teens, Sex & Truth, which encourages girls and the adults in their lives to engage in meaningful dialogue about pressures to have sex, the many reasons why girls choose to have sex when they are not ready to, the emotional and physical consequences of that choice, why girls are not practicing safe sex and how to protect their bodies, minds and hearts.