The Middle School Years
Though we have separated this resource into sections by age, this is far from a static breakdown. All children are different and it’s most important to educate them based on their own personal growth. Your children may ask questions, run into sexual or social problems or may become sexually active earlier or later that you expect, so we welcome you to skip ahead or go back to sections to find the relevant advice. We all learn and grown at our own rate and so these designations are meant to be guidelines, not rules.
Sex is never only about body parts and condoms. Sex is a nuanced and complicated topic and simply providing your child with facts and statistics is helpful, but doesn't give the complete picture of what it is to be a sexual person. As they grow older, the topics of your discussions about sex should move away from simple anatomy and statistics. Your child will probably be grappling with crushes and their changing bodies. They will be confronted with a double standard about sex where sexually active girls are often shunned or receive unwanted sexual attention and sexually active boys are often congratulated and pressured to collect as many sexual partners as possible. They may experience sexual firsts like first dates, first kisses, or first intercourse and sex will become a common topic of discussion among their peers.
At this point, it is important to remember to bring social issues into your discussion of sex with your child. Ask them about relationships, what sexual behavior they see their peers engaging in and how sexual attention makes them feel. Talk to them about how you feel about watching them mature sexually and if you feel comfortable, maybe even share your own first kiss story as an icebreaker. Make sure to express both the negatives and positives that come with being sexual in our society. Talk to them (both boys and girls) about sexism, homophobia, sexual stereotyping and the pressure to be sexual. Discuss and dispel sexual stereotypes that may exist about others of their gender, race or socioeconomic background. Ask them if they have experienced any of these things. Talk to them about the empowering feeling of being in control of their own sexuality and the resources available to them for learning about sexuality.
This is the age group where most boys and girls will begin to go through puberty. Puberty can bring up a wealth of emotions for your child so it is especially important that you are there to talk to them since they may not have many other resources at their disposal. Their peers will be developing at wildly different rates, rumors will be flying and young teens are often too embarrassed to ask questions of their teachers or doctors.
Always start out with a simple explanation of the biology of puberty. Ask you child what they know about it, what they have begun to experience and what they expect to happen in the next years. Fill in any pieces they are missing and expand on it. Talk about body hair, dropping voices, periods, breast and penis growth, gaining weight and mood swings. Teach your daughters how to use pads, tampons or menstrual cups. Make sure to acknowledge that all these changes are normal, though they may be embarrassing or confusing. Many girls going through puberty develop weight issues because they believe they are getting fat, when they are really only developing hips and breasts and gaining the body fat they need as a healthy female adult. Make sure to discuss what happens during puberty for boys with your daughters and what happens for girls with your sons, since they will no doubt be watching their peers go through these changes. It will be helpful now, and later in life if your son knows what a period is and your daughter understands voice cracks. It may even cut down on peer teasing.
Acknowledge the emotional effects of puberty. Talk about how your children may find themselves having more sexual feelings and fantasies than they did before. Remind them that sexual fantasies doesn't necessarily mean they are ready to have sex, they are just part of their body preparing for adulthood. Ask them if they have found that the way they look at their peers and the world is changing at all. Discuss these emotional changes with your child. Make a list of resources they can access (doctors, books, therapists, websites) and activities they can do (yoga, sports, writing, art) if their moods seem to be getting out of their control.
Overall it's important to make yourself emotionally available. At a time when their bodies, friendships and emotions will be in flux, their family and home can be a wonderfully stabilizing factor in their lives. If your child seems angry or annoyed at you, take a break from these sorts of talks and return when they are in a better mood. No matter what your family or household is like, you can help your child through puberty by simply always keeping the lines of communication open.
It may be tempting to tease your child about their new bra, voice cracks or crushes, but try to abstain. They are probably already feeling self-conscious about these changes and even your well-intentioned remarks will feel harsh to them. Be light-hearted and laugh with them, but don't poke fun.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
One of the most important parts of talking about sexuality is talking about the consequences of sexual behavior. Though sex should be construed as a positive and healthy behavior, there are consequences and it's important to convey to your child that they should be responsible enough to handle these possible consequences before they become sexually active in any way. Half of teenage girls report that their parents have never discussed contraceptives or STIs with them, and presumably the numbers are similar for boys (1). This is a disturbing fact given the number of STIs and unplanned pregnancies that occur among young people out of ignorance of the facts of sexual health.
First off, make sure your child has medically accurate and understandable resources on contraceptives and STIs. Don't hand your 13 year old a medical text book, but don't rely on rumors or old wives tales either. Do research, buy comprehensive resources and make these things available. Make sure they can go back to this resource by themselves after your talk. Ask them what they already know and help to correct any wrong ideas they may have. Give them the facts that the rates of STIs in the United States are extremely high and they are something to worry about, but also give them facts about how to protect themselves. One in four Americans will be diagnosed with an STI in their life (2), so this is a pressing issue. Now is the age to talk about the facts of STIs. Ask them how many STIs they can name, see how many you can remember, and then compare lists and look up the right answer. Ask your child what behaviors they have heard can transmit STIs and explain the mechanics of transmission. Always remind yourself and your child that STIs can be transmitted through behaviors other than intercourse, including oral sex, anal sex and other genital contact. STIs and safer sex are relatively straightforward to understand once you introduce the basic information. If you teach them that herpes is contacted by skin-to-skin contact and that condoms cover infected skin, it's easy for them to understand why condoms are so important. Remember that many teens have the attitude that STIs can't happen to them because they are young/privileged/in school/in a relationship/douching/praying/living in America. Make sure to stress that young people are a demographic that is extremely at risk for STIs. In fact, a large portion of sexual activity among young teens is unplanned or even coercive, which makes it unlikely that safer sex methods are used (3). No one is immune to STIs. For more discussion on protecting against STIs, unwanted pregnancy and using birth control look in the "High School Years" section.
Again, this is the age to talk about the facts of pregnancy. One third of 15-year-old girls in one study reported that their parents had never discussed the facts of pregnancy with them(4). Talk to your teen about how pregnancy can happen. Yes, they know it can happen through unprotected sex, but do they know it can happen when sperm drips into the vagina from the outside, when someone skips a birth control pill or when they're on their period? Ask your child if they know how to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Remember that condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy (5). It might be scary to imagine, but what if your child or one of their friends becomes pregnant? What would they do? What would you want them to do? Ask your child what they would do and work together to do the research on how to make this happen. Find the numbers of friendly doctors, abortion providers, adoption counselors or any other resources you, your child or their peers may need. Remember that unwanted pregnancy is often a scary, emotional topic, so be sure to check in with your child and comfort them if they feel uncomfortable. Remind them that education and preparedness are empowering and healthy, not scare tactics. Remember that protecting against pregnancy can be very simple: use condoms correctly and consistently.
Your discussion of birth control with your child at this age will probably focus on condoms. Many teens and adults find condoms silly looking, so feel free to embrace this. Look at ones with fun images on the packaging, blow them up into balloons and laugh. Ask your child what they know about condoms. Who taught them? What do their friends think of them? Make sure to drive the point home that condoms are the only method of birth control that can effectively protect against STIs. Condom use is especially common among teenagers and individuals in their twenties (Alan Guttmacher Institute Fact Sheet on Contraceptive Use 2005), so your child will probably be most familiar with this method. Talk about pulling out (withdrawal) and explain why it's ineffective (because pre-ejaculate can still contain sperm and STIs). If you feel comfortable, buy some condoms to look at with your child. If they haven't been taught in school, you can even get a cucumber or carrot and teach your child how to put on a condom. This may seem like it would be horribly awkward for you and your child, but remember to acknowledge this nervousness and make it light-hearted. Point out where your child can get condoms. Maybe next time you are in your neighborhood drug store, walk past the aisle with condoms in it and quietly point out that they sell condoms there. This also depends on where you live. Living with a drug store a block away will make getting condoms easier for your child. If you live in a less urban area and your child doesn't have access to a car, consider asking them if they want you to buy them condoms or giving them some discreetly.
Also go beyond the "Just Use Condoms" message. Human pappilomavirus and Herpes can both be transmitted even when a condom is being used (because the infection can exist outside the area covered by the condom (6). Ask your child how else they think they can avoid STIs. Listen to their answers. Remind them that limiting their number of sexual partners, talking to their partners about their sexual past and getting tested regularly are important parts of safer sex.
Sometimes even the word "sex" needs to be discussed. What is sex exactly? A related question is what is abstinence? Everyone answers these questions differently. Some teenagers may pledge to be abstinent until marriage but still engage in oral sex because they don't consider it "real sex." Talk to your child about how they feel about various sexual acts such as kissing, petting and oral, anal or vaginal sex. Do they have boundaries or limits on their sexual behavior ("I won't kiss a boy until we've been dating for two weeks.")? Ask why they choose these boundaries. Are there boundaries you want them to have ("Don't go on dates until you are 16." or "Don't have sex without a condom ever.")? Explain why you feel this way. A good way to approach this conversation is by discussing emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. Both are wonderful parts of relationships, but sometimes they do not line up. Ask your child how they think various sexual acts (instances of physical intimacy) line up with emotional intimacy. Do they think vaginal sex is more intimate than oral sex? Would they kiss someone they weren't dating, but will only have oral sex (physical intimacy) if their partner says they love them (emotional intimacy)? Explore both your and your child's thoughts about these issues. When they are in a relationship, ask about this divide and how emotionally intimate your child thinks they are with their partner. Talk about abstinence. Ask your child what their definition is. Tell them what your definition is and see how they are similar or different. Make sure to stress that all sexual contact carries the risk of STIs, so even if they think oral sex isn't "real sex," it can still give them a very real infection.
As much as you wish your child's sexual growth would be smooth and enjoyable, or at the least, unremarkable, this is not always the case. Unwanted pregnancies, abusive relationships, substance abuse, sexual assault and STIs occur with disturbing frequency. Talk to your child about these issues and make sure they have a plan of what they will do if any of them occur to them or one of their friends. These topics may be frightening to both you and your child so make sure to be on the lookout for signs that they are becoming anxious or upset. Take breaks, comfort your child and spread the talks out over a few weeks.
Again, try making a list with your child either on paper or out loud. Talk about what can go wrong with being sexually active. List things like sexual assault, STIs, abusive relationships (physical and emotional), unwanted pregnancy and Internet harassment. Next list ways to avoid them like using condoms, avoiding drugs and alcohol, taking self-defense classes, or not posting personal information on the Internet. Remind them that drug and alcohol use are very frequently factors in many of these situations and avoiding substance abuse can greatly reduce their risk. Lastly, list what your child and you will do if one of these things occur. The list should include things like telling a parent or trusted adult, going to a doctor immediately, researching signs of abuse, having the number of a friendly doctor, abortion clinic or adoption counselor, making a police report and many others. Remember to do this with children of both genders. Both girls and boys can be perpetrators as well as victims of sexual assault and becoming an unwanted parent can be upsetting to both genders.
1. Alan Guttmacher Institute. Sex and America's Teenagers . New York, NY: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994.
2. Center for Disease Control - www.cdc.gov
3. Committee on Unintended Pregnancy, Institute of Medicine; Brown SS, Eisenberg L, eds. The Best Intentions . Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995.
4. Alan Guttmacher Institute. Sex and America's Teenagers . New York, NY: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994.
5. Hatcher, R. Contraceptive Technologies. www.contraceptivetechnology.org
6. Center for Disease Control. www.cdc.gov