Early teens (ages twelve to fifteen) experience powerful changes in their bodies, which lead them to pay more attention to their anatomy. Some become interested in romance as well. At this stage, the same-sex parent may need to ease a child’s apprehensions over changes in his or her body and help the child adjust to this new reality (for instance, teaching a son to shave, or a daughter how to use a tampon). The opposite-sex parent can give subtle compliments as teens develop (for instance, “I can tell you’re getting stronger,” or “You look so sharp in that grown-up dress”), presenting the changes as something that signals maturity, without getting so specific that the teen is embarrassed. By this time in a child’s life, moreover, the sex talk should be less about the mechanics of sex—which the child should pretty much understand by now—and more about the philosophy—or the meaning of sex.
Sex As a Gift-of-Self in Marriage. Reflect with your children about the real meaning of love: “True love is about self-gift. It’s about giving of ourselves to others in a spirit of sacrifice and love. Can you think of examples of people who show they love others by giving of themselves in service and love? . . . Can you think of examples of people from movies or books who show a lot of self-love but not other-person love? . . . Yes, those are great examples! So you understand why we must strive to respect and care for others just as we respect and care for ourselves.”
“Now, you already know that there is one ultimate way to give ourselves to another person, and that is in marriage, when we promise to love, honor, and remain faithful to one person we have chosen to devote all our love to. You see, our bodies have their own language, their own way of communicating this total gift of self. Sex is that language. Sex says, ‘I give myself entirely to you for my whole life.’”
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“As you grow, you will find out that some people, including many teens, have sex without being married. However, that kind of sex is like telling a lie. The body says, ‘I give myself entirely to you, and I want to bond my body with yours and possibly have a child with you,’ but the people have not said these kinds of things to each other. They are usually not willing to welcome a child into their lives, and they usually just want to have sex without having to commit to loving one another for the rest of their lives. So basically, they are saying one thing with their bodies and another thing with their words. Do you see why this is dishonest? How do you think this could hurt people? . . . Yes, that’s right. So, you want to be an honest person, and save this act of total self-gift for marriage.”
Why Some Teens Have Sex Outside of Marriage. Your child may already be aware of sexually active peers. Reflect with them about these matters: “Why do you think some kids your age have sex?” Let them try to answer, and validate any truths they already know. “Yes, that’s right. Some teens seek out sex because they think it will make them more popular. Others do it out of curiosity, to know what it’s like. Others seek the emotional and physical high that comes from being sexual with someone. Some don’t want to have sex at all, but they drink alcohol and end up doing it mindlessly, often regretting it the next day. Sadly, many teens have sex to feel accepted or loved because they do not feel fully accepted or loved at home.”
It can be helpful to give examples in reference to either something that has happened in the real world or at school, or something depicted in a popular song or movie. This makes discussions more interesting and relevant. It also lets your teens know that you are not naive to what is going on and you want them to be in-the-know, too: well-informed and street-smart. Be sure to counterbalance the negative examples with positive examples of true love and romance from movies, books, and real life, to offer fodder for their moral imaginations.
Sex As a Baby-Making Activity. An additional message that hits home is the reminder that sexual activity can lead to babies, and that babies born outside of wedlock suffer an injustice: “Would you have liked to have had only a mother and not a father, or to have been abandoned? You see, marriage is what best ensures that a baby has both parents for as long as possible. When two people marry, they don’t just make promises to each other in private. They announce to each other and to all their family and friends at the wedding that they will be faithful and stay together, and that they are ready to raise any children created by their love. This thing we call ‘marriage’ is the best way to make sure that men and women stay with each other and help raise the children they create.” Conversations about subjects like these will help your teen understand why the rules and boundaries make sense and who is hurt when the rules are broken. (This will help you be a loving mentor and guide, and not just a rule-maker.)
Show Them Their Worth. Constantly emphasize to your children by words and many varied actions that they are wonderful, unique, worthy, and loved, no matter what: “You have dignity by design, forever and ever. No mistake or situation can ever blot out your dignity.” Teens who receive these messages from their mother and father will be less prone to turn to sexual activity to validate their self-worth. Never stop sending the message that the sexuality of their bodies is good, that sex is good, and that you want them to be prepared to express their total love to someone worthy of their commitment, if they decide to marry someday. (And if they want to stay single, that’s fine too.)
Body Safety Revisited. At this age, teens usually have a little more freedom and independence from Mom and Dad, so they need to be reminded about protecting their own personal boundaries: “Remember never to be alone in close quarters with an adult, especially someone of the opposite sex, unless there is an exceptionally good reason.” Speak clearly about these matters to both sons and daughters: “Always, always trust your gut if you start to feel uneasy—no matter whom you are with: a family friend, a teacher, a religious leader, a coach, etc. No one is to touch your thigh, smell your hair, expose themselves to you, or invite you to talk about sex or generally cross personal boundaries.” Young men and women need to be alerted to the dangers of predatory males specifically: “You may not feel like you would be attractive to older men, but there are some creepy men out there who prey upon young people. I don’t want you to be naive.” Think about some hypothetical scenarios together (“Say you are in the locker room at the gym. . . .”), and come up with ideas on how to get out of uncomfortable situations. “You do not have to be polite to people who cross boundaries. Walk away; ignore them. Run or scream if you have to get out of an uncomfortable situation. People who disrespect you are not worthy of your respect.” Invite them to communicate anything to you or another trusted adult: “It is not an accusation to simply relay that you felt funny being with so and so.” These are important conversations that will help your teens retain their own self-respect, personal boundaries, and confidence.
Sexting. By this age, many kids have a phone with a camera, and they need coaching on appropriate versus inappropriate photos. Explain that sexting is sending or forwarding pictures or messages that are sexual in nature, or asking someone to send you such images. Explain the very real hazards: “Sexting can put you at risk for blackmail and bullying. It can ruin your reputation and even attract sexual predators. Because texts are never really private, they can easily find their way to the internet.” Tell them not to be involved with sexting in any way, and to alert you immediately if anything like that is sent to their phone. Suggestive pictures of minors involving any nudity are illegal, and teens can be prosecuted just for having them in their possession.
By keeping these messages in mind, you will be well prepared to lovingly mentor and guide your middle schooler on these important subjects. Come back next week for the last installment of our Tips, where we give you some pointers for the high school years.
For hard copies of the booklet “Tips for Talking to Kids about Sex,” from which this article is excerpted, please email email@example.com. Other suggested readings about the natural law understanding of sexuality and marriage can be found at www.CanaVox.com.