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Sandy Banks

Make Message Clear on Teen Sex

September 10, 2002|Sandy Banks

We lecture, punish, instruct, restrict. But it turns out the best thing we can do to keep our teenagers from having sex at an early age may be to make sure they understand that we really, really don't want them to ... but we're not going to love them any less if they do.

In thousands of interviews with teenagers and their mothers, researchers recently isolated two factors that seem to best account for the difference between teens who become sexually active in adolescence and those who wait: Their mothers' expectations and the relationship between mother and child.

In other words, your teenager has to know what you think, and care enough for it to matter.

The good news for mothers in this new research is that we have more influence than we might think. Teenagers who perceive that their mothers "strongly disapprove" of them having sex are the most likely to remain virgins longer than those whose mothers only mildly disapprove.

But the bad news is that too many of us stumble in conveying that message: We wait too long or preach too much or rely too heavily on "the talk" about sexual mechanics to connect with our teens about sex.

"Being clear to your kids about your values is not a matter of repeating the same line over and over for 15 or 18 years," explains Dr. Robert Blum, the University of Minnesota professor who co-authored the study. "It's using everything around us--newspapers, music, television shows--as the basis of conversation.

"And it's something that should be done from the time they are small; talking and listening, telling our kids what we think, hearing from them what they think, figuring out what they think we think."

Studies show that by the time children enter high school, almost one-third have already had sexual intercourse. That rises to 60% by the time they reach 12th grade. And that doesn't include forms of sexual expression that stop short of intercourse.

As a pediatrician and head of the university's Center for Adolescent Health and Development, Blum says he is often asked at what age parents should begin talking to their children about sex.

"The truth of the matter is that our kids are surrounded from the get-go by a vast variety of sexual messages. Ask what they think, watch how they react ... Some of us are afraid of putting ideas in their head. But you look at the data, you see half of all kids who are having sex, their moms are saying they're not. Our reluctance is somewhat far removed from our kids' realities."

In fact, one surprising result of the study was how often parents and children misread each other. Mothers who thought they were giving firm, clear messages against adolescent sex had children who underestimated the strength of that disapproval. And mothers who reported that their sons or daughters were not yet having sex were wrong 50% of the time.

A father of three, Blum said he understands the parental discomfort that leads to denial. "It's uncomfortable to acknowledge your child as a sexual being. We want to maintain an idealized view, which is to say, for some, we don't want to know. Our kids pick up on that.

"So, on a gut level, we hold our breath and hope our kids get through adolescence without getting into too much trouble. For most of us, we're successful and they're successful, and if they do get into trouble, they don't tell us until they're 25. But the cost of that gamble can be very high ... too high for them and for us."

It is certainly not a new concept, this notion that a close family exerts a sort of protective influence on children as they careen through adolescence. Studies of everything from academic performance to substance abuse show a correlation between kids' behavior and their relationship with their families. Teens are less likely to use drugs, drink alcohol or have sex when they believe they are loved and trusted and can communicate with their parents.

But this new study offers a reminder of something else we tend to forget when we're buddying up to our kids, trying to create those close relationships the experts say will see us through: Kids need guidance.

Call it "mother-child connectedness," as the researchers do. It means knowing what your child thinks, where she goes, who he hangs around with, what she knows. It means watching and listening ... and living our lives in a way that acknowledges that our kids are watching us too.

It really does matter what we say and do. And, every now and then, it doesn't hurt to haul out that old cliche "It'll break your mother's heart if you do .... "

Sandy Banks' column is published Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes. com.

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