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Talking about sex, but who's listening?

Calm, careful points that respond to teens' specific concerns are best way to reach them, experts say

Calm, careful points that respond to teens' specific concerns are best way to reach them, experts say

September 08, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

For starters, children should know that there are no body parts named "peepee."

"From the very beginning, a parent does best by their child, for their future years, by saying, 'This is your penis. This is your vagina.' We are born different sexes," said Washington County Family Center Director Karen Christof. The Family Center is a branch of the Washington County Department of Social Services.

Christof said the sex talk begins at birth.

That doesn't mean that toddlers should know all about the mechanics of having sex.

"What you're trying to build is a good self-esteem and a good self-concept and values around them as a person whether they're a male or female," said Christof, a member of the Washington County Community Partnership for Children and Families (WCCP). "That sets the groundwork for how they feel about themselves and how they're going to feel about themselves when they get older."

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The WCCP, a 50-member, community-based task force that examines social issues, is preparing a kit for parents that will help them talk to their children about sex. The kit - a collection of information - should be available in January or February.

The problem, Christof said, was that teens and parents perceive sex differently, so when the subject is broached, each party walks away with a different message. For parents, the sex talk focuses around not getting pregnant. For teens, it's more about relationships and falling in love.

"I think we all try to give out information, but we're missing the boat," Christof said.

According to the most recent data available from the Washington County Health Department, there were 48.6 births for every 1,000 teens in Washington County in 2004. That amounts to the fourth highest birth rate in the state. The state average was 32.3 births.

Young people in Washington County accounted for the majority of the county's chlamydia and gonorrhea cases between 2001 and 2005, according to health department data.

In response to the statistics, the WCCP initiated a study of the views of teens and parents toward sex in 2005. The WCCP study, released last year, surveyed 288 teens and 151 parents from Washington County.

"Virtually all of the parents surveyed in the study said that they had talked to their children about sex," said Maureen Grove, WCCP chairwoman and executive director of Girls Inc. in Hagerstown. "But then when we asked their children - the teens - only half of them said their parents had talked to them about sex. The parents feel they're talking, but they're not telling the youths what they want to here, and it's not enough."

Christof and Grove offered several tips for parents:

· Listen and don't judge.

"A lot of teens feel that, if they initiate a conversation about sex, parents assume they're (sexually active) or are going to (be), so then, teens ... are already prejudged for trying to initiate (the conversation), and again the parent's first instinct is lecture," Grove said.

For example, Christof said, if a teen brings up the topic of sex, parents should try to understand how the teen feels about sex, instead of jumping to conclusions or launching into a lecture.

· Don't use euphemisms for body parts. Use the real terms.

"If a 5-year-old comes up to his mother and says, 'Mommy, what is this?' and he's touching his penis, hopefully the mother is comfortable enough to say, 'That's your penis. That's part of you being a boy,' and not being afraid of using those terms." Christof said.

· Talk to teens about healthy relationships

Teens might want to discuss relationships and love, but parents zoom in and tell them not to get pregnant and to avoid sexually transmitted infections, Christof said.

"It may be that we're coming from a different level or aspect than the teen wants to be hearing and talking about," Christof said.

· Go easy on the gory details.

"I have two teens, and I think that they will certainly say to me, 'Whoa, too much information. Don't talk about that,'" Christof said. "They don't want to hear about my experiences, because I'm Mom."

"Teens often say they've heard enough about the mechanics of sex. That's what they see and hear in some of the classes, and that's certainly what they talk about among their friends and stuff," Christof said.




What's at stake



Of all the counties in Maryland, Washington County had the fourth highest teen birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds in 2004, according to the most recent data available from the Washington County Health Department. There were 48.6 births for every 1,000 girls in that age group. The state average was 32.3 births.

Health department spokesman Rod MacRae said the number of teen births in Washington County have declined between 2004 and 2005, from 206 to 196, but the actual birth rates were unavailable for 2005. Still, MacRae said the number of teen births in 2005 is troubling. Teen mothers accounted for more than 10 percent of the 1,756 births in Washington County that year.

Young people also made up nearly half of the chlamydia and gonorrhea reported cases in Washington County between 2001 and 2005, MacRae said. In those years, 18- and 19-year-olds comprised roughly 25 percent of the 2,238 chlamydia and gonorrhea reported cases in the county. Teens, those 17 and younger, accounted for nearly 21 percent.

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