Helping Teens to Become Sexually Responsible Adults

by Cephus Nolen, Jr.

Let's face it: Children today are exposed to and have more access to adult sexual information and images than at any other time in history. Sex pervades contemporary culture, and is evident in everything from television commercials to the Internet.

Moreover, recent studies suggest that this generation of children is reaching puberty at a much earlier age than previous generations. Reports indicate that children as young as eight are displaying secondary sexual characteristics (that is, pubic hair and breast development).

What are the implications of early onset of puberty combined with early exposure to sexually- stimulating themes in the media?

As a professional who has worked with children and families for the past 18 years, I have observed some troubling behaviors exhibited by young teens due to their immaturity in the face of exposure to sexually-explicit materials:

  • A 6th grader was selling pornographic pictures at school. He had downloaded these images from the Internet and printed them on a color printer. He reported making quite a profit before being caught.

  • A 15-year-old girl revealed that she had 15 sexual partners in her young life.

  • A 14-year-old girl explained that anal intercourse was a good way to prevent pregnancy.

  • A 14-year-old boy tried to convince me that adults working in porno films were doing it because it was "fun." He went on to say that he would do it for money.

  • Several young teen boys racked up thousands of dollars in phone charges to 1-900 numbers.

Education Must Begin Sooner

Children are maturing much earlier physically than they are emotionally and cognitively. And yet, while children in the 2nd and 3rd grades are entering the initial stages of puberty, they may not receive the information they need to handle these changes in health class for another two years. This raises two important questions:

  1. What is the level of anxiety for these children who are experiencing such physical changes before they have been prepared for them?

  2. Are these children receiving the type of health care they need at this critical stage of development?

Many professionals now believe that there is a need for schools and parents to give children the information and education they need about the physical and emotional changes related to puberty at earlier ages.

Managing Media Exposure

In the political arena, in the community and within the home, discussion continues regarding what to do about the access that children have to adult/sexual themes portrayed in the media. The easy solution is for parents to restrict their child's access to media material that they view as inappropriate for children. The reality is that it may be next to impossible to shield children from all media that parents find objectionable. Many parents feel helpless in the face of this onslaught. The Sexuality Information & Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) offers some helpful hints:

  • You can refuse to watch or listen to anything you find inappropriate.

  • Parents and other concerned adults can help children to understand media that is scary, confusing, or not intended for children.

  • Parents can set limits on television shows, movies, and music available to their children.

  • When setting limits, parents have the opportunity to discuss values related to sexuality and/or violence.

  • When parents are unable to shield children from what they deem inappropriate, they can use the experience as a "teachable moment" to help children learn a lesson about sexuality.

It is important that parents understand their role as the primary influence on their children's developing sexual values and attitudes. Parents need to respond to the images of sexuality offered by the media and convey messages about appropriate sexuality. The best way to do this is to simply talk with your children.

Confronting Inappropriate Sexual Behaviors

Even though most children and adolescents will not engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors, we know that there are those who will.

It is essential that adults, parents, teachers and the community confront inappropriate sexual behavior when it occurs. When children engage in skirt flipping, bra snapping, or use sexually graphic language, adults can use these incidents as "teaching moments." It is important that young people understand what is considered appropriate behavior in their community and what types of behaviors will not be tolerated. Parents can play an important role in teaching their children proper social skills and in supervising and holding their children accountable for their behavior.

Though schools and other institutions can be excellent sources of factual information about human sexuality, it is again the parents who have a critical role to play in teaching children the attitudes with which these behaviors are ultimately carried out.

For practical information on adolescent sexuality (for you and your teen), I encourage you to explore the SIECUS (Sexuality Information & Education Council of the United States) Web site.

Date published: 11/29/00
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
    Published on All rights reserved.