Teenagers live in a world with unparalleled opportunities. The internet, social communication technology and the pervading presence of the smartphone have resulted in a generation of digital natives to whom information on anything and everything is available literally at their fingertips. Today’s teen lives in a global cyber village where friends are counted by Facebook contacts, identity is an online profile or avatar, and face-to-face interactions are replaced by texting and chat rooms 24-7.
All of these opportunities come with a dark side. Pornography is a global industry of over 97 billion dollars, and the average age at which young people first view pornography is said to be between 11 and 13 years. The damaging effects of porn use on developing teen brains have been well documented (1). Research to date indicates that cyber communication, enabling individuals to be constantly connected, has affected young people’s ability to relate face-to-face while encouraging explicit and often unhealthy communication such as sexting and cyber bullying. This is in addition to a constant bombardment of sexualised images, videos and advertisements.
What can parents do?
This super-sexualisation of our teens and even our children is recognised and often reacted to with abhorrence (2), but parents, teachers and the Church community can feel helpless to do anything. Although well intentioned, the sex education provided by schools seems inadequate and insufficient given the challenges our children face in their sexual behaviour, and in everyday life. .
When it comes to sexual behaviour, parents and schools despair at the current trends. An Australian report (3) in 2011 asserts that Australia’s young people are facing a sexual health crisis on an epidemic scale. In 2010, young people (aged 15 to 29) accounted for 77% of all STIs diagnosed in Australia. In a 2008 Australia-wide study (4), almost 80% of 3000 Year 10-12 students surveyed were sexually active. Of these, almost 50% had experienced oral sex, and 20% of all year 10's and 50% of all year 12's had experienced sexual intercourse.
What then should be our role as parents? Do we throw our hands up in despair and condemn what culture, society and technology are doing to our children? Do we leave it to schools, media and friends to provide sexual values, morals and education? Or do we take back the initiative and privilege of Christian parenting and challenge our children to lead godly lives?
Sexual sciences support the biblical view of the role of parents in the nurturing and training of their children. When parenting teens, what we do to teach them and how we role-model and communicate with them will mould their sexuality.
The development of the teen brain
The teen brain is a work in progress. The deep emotional brain begins to ‘mature’ in the early teens, at puberty. Deep in what we call the limbic system and amygdala, nerve connections are formed and reformed. Crazy teenage emotions and mood swings, as well as a bubbling-over sexuality, start early.
The scary thing is that the brain’s frontal lobe, responsible for such ’executive‘ functions as self-control, judgement, emotional regulation, organisation and planning, does not fully mature until the early to mid-twenties.
Part of this is biological and determined by hormones. But external environmental factors are another influence on brain development.
What teenagers surround themselves with - what they see, think about and do, and who they look up to and choose as role models - will impact brain development and influence their choices and behaviour as teenagers, and later as adults.
Sociologists call this ‘social scripting’.
In Philippians 4:8 we read:
brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.
Can you see this important connection?
The inputs to the brain in this adolescent teenage period influence neurological development. This is why parents are important: they can influence the brain development of their teenage children. If parents don’t take the initiative, the media, internet, friends and porn will provide the input instead.
Who or what is in charge of your teenager’s brain development?
As Christian parents, the Bible impresses upon us the need to teach our children to make godly decisions. In Deuteronomy 6:4–7 we read,
The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
There is no one way for parents to convey values or influence attitudes and behaviours in the sexual realm. What is important is to start the discussion as early as you feel is appropriate as a normal, holistic part of conversation and take every opportunity to revisit it as your children grow.
Be there and be aware
Here are some pointers for communicating with teenagers:
- Clearly articulate your family and religious values regarding sexual intercourse. Express that, although sex is pleasurable, young people should wait until they are in a mature, loving and committed relationship before they initiate sex, and for Christians, this means waiting until marriage.
- Although they may groan at the thought, children need to know that their parents are in a loving and, yes, sexual relationship! Don’t be embarrassed to show your relational intimacy.
- Give your children a clear grounding in the gospel and a clear sense of identity in Christ.
- Express that there is a variety of options for affection and love that don’t include sex. Teach by example that it is possible to be friends with someone of the opposite sex, and that closeness without sex is possible and beautiful.
- Value their decisions and be a part of the process. Be the type of parent that a teen can talk to.
- Encourage teens to socialise and get to know others, and be ready to pick up the pieces when things go wrong in their friendships.
- Don’t wait for the school to introduce issues of sex such as intercourse, STIs, abuse and contraception. Use every teachable moment to present the Christian view on these issues.
- Know what your teens are doing and with whom.
- Empower your children to get away from situations that they are uncomfortable with. Let them know that it’s OK to say ‘no’, and encourage them to discuss their feelings with you rather than with a friend.
Not all of these will be relevant to every family and situation, but, if you are a parent of a teenager, this list may be a useful conversation starter. You or your children may think of other ways you could communicate better. But in short, the key is to be there and be aware.
Dr Weerakoon’s new book on teen sexuality and relationships, Teen Sex By the Book, is available now from www.fervr.net/teen-sex-by-the-book or by calling (02) 8268 3344. RRP—$14.95.
(1) Flood M 2009, ‘The Harms of Pornography Exposure Among Children and Young People’, Child Abuse Review, 18,pp. 384–400.
(2) Collective Shout is one movement campaigning against the sexualisation of girls in popular culture, http://collectiveshout.org/
(3) ‘HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia’ Annual Surveillance Report 2011. The Kirby Institute, the University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.
(4) Smith, A: A, Agius P, Mitchell A, Barrett C & Pitts M, 2009, Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008, monograph series no. 70, Australian Research Centre, Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/arcshs/downloads/arcshs-research-publications/secondary-students-and-sexual-health-2008.pdf
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