Think hard and you might recall your first teenage romance. You couldn't sleep or eat -- you couldn't wait to see each other again. You talked on the phone for hours. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, many parents face a challenging balancing act when their teens, just like adults, want to show and express their feelings for their loved ones. Parents want to validate their children's feelings of love and affection while hoping the romance does not include having sex.
"Discussing sexuality issues with teens can be a difficult conversation to have, let alone even initiate," said Catherine Sherwood-Puzzello, a clinical assistant professor in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Applied Health Science. Her research and teaching interests include human sexuality and public health education. "The best advice is to become an informed and 'askable parent.'"
Parents cringe at having "that" conversation with their children for many reasons. Sherwood-Puzzello offers some tips to help parents and their children open the lines of communication.
* Become informed. Many parents don't know the answers to their teens' questions or they simply don't know how to answer the question. They might feel uncomfortable with the topic, yet fear their teen will get misinformation from other sources. The first step, Sherwood-Puzzello said, is for parents to become informed so fears can be reduced. These Web sites and books can help: http://www.familiesaretalking.org/resources/rsrc0000.html; http://www.iwannaknow.org/parents/index.html; http://www.greattowait.com/parents/index.html; Raising a Child Responsibly in a Sexually Permissive World, by Sol Gordon and Judith Gordon (they coined the term "askable parent"), and Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born, by Judith Gordon, Vivien Cohen and Sol Gordon.
* Be direct about expectations and limitations. These can include such things as curfews, discussions about the appropriate age for dating, and clearly communicating family values about abstinence. This may mean having frequent discussions about the positive aspects of sexual abstinence to reinforce this expected behavior. Sherwood-Puzzello said parents need to be clear about consequences if the expectations are not met. She said parents need to start talking about their expectations and limitations when their children are very young. Young children challenge family rules on a daily basis just to test their parents and to determine whether the rules have changed -- this "challenge" continues into the teen years.
* Be there. Make sure teens know a parent is available to talk. Talking with teens about sexuality will not encourage them to have sex, Sherwood-Puzzello said. It sends the message that someone cares enough to discuss such a sensitive topic and can develop a stronger bond between parent and child.
* Tune in so they don't tune out. Parents need to prepare their responses when the questions are asked. "That's a really good question," is a good first response, Sherwood-Puzzello said, because it allows for the door to stay open and the conversation to continue. Answer only the question the teen asks -- teens will tune parents out when the discussion turns into a lecture, when yelling or shouting begins, or when the parent answers a question with a question. Establishing trust is critical.
* Be a good role model. Parents can be the best person to show appropriate ways their teen can express love and affection. Parents need to be clear about their own sexual attitudes and values. Parents need to discuss their attitudes about love, affection, intimacy and sex with their teens, while at the same time modeling the family values.
* Romance. Parents can steer their children toward healthier and safe ways to show love, such as putting love notes in unexpected places or sending a loving e-mail. Check out the heart graphic with this tip sheet for more ideas.