When it comes to our kids, there are the ‘firsts’ that love-bomb us every time we go there. They’re the ones that are easy to think about – the first time we laid eyes on them, their first word, their first day at school. Then there are the ones that are harder, but just as inevitable – their first broken heart, their first drink, the first time they have sex. These experiences are a very normal, healthy part of them growing into the amazing adults we know they will be. They are the firsts that will happen without us.
Some of those things we won’t be able to prepare them for, such a broken heart. Nothing prepares you for that. When it happens, they’ll learn, they’ll grow, and they’ll find their way back from that broken heart even stronger and wiser than before. Just like we did.
Then there are the things that we have to prepare them for. Bad decisions can happen in a moment, that’s all it takes. That’s why it’s critical to empower them as much as we can, so that when those moments present themselves – which they will – they are well armed.
Drinking and sex are two of the big ones because of the potential for devastating fallout if they make a bad decision. We don’t want to scare them or strip the joy and excitement from their discovery, but we do need to empower them so that their experiences will be ones that build them, not ones that tear them down.
Control. Why we need to let go of it.
The cold hard truth is that we can’t control what they do. We can tell ourselves that we have control, but if they want to do something badly enough, they’ll find a way to do it. They’re smart, they’re resourceful and they’re creative. If we try too hard to control them, we’ll lose them.
What we can have is influence. We can have plenty and it’s vital for them that we strive for as much as possible, but that influence won’t come through control.
The Research – What You Need to Know.
Giving them the information they need is critical, and new research has found that when it comes to sex and drinking, the conversations also have to happen together. According to the research, the decisions our teens make about alcohol and their first sexual experience might make them vulnerable to future problems, such as sexual assault, so they need to realise the risks in mixing the two.
In the study involving 228 women between the ages of 18-20, researchers found that the average age women started drinking was 14. The average age they first had sexual intercourse was 16.
When the first sexual experience involved alcohol it was most likely to be a hook-up, meaning that it was outside of a relationship, with a partner who was also using substances and after a social gathering involving alcohol.
Not surprisingly, first sexual experiences that involved alcohol were:
- less planned;
- less wanted; and
- rated more negatively overall.
This was compared to those that didn’t involve alcohol. These generally took place within a romantic relationship and were more planned, more wanted and more positive.
Nearly 20% of the women in the group that were under the influence of alcohol when they first had sex reported that it was without their consent. These women were found to be three times more likely to be the victims of incapacitated rape in the future.
What does it mean for the way we talk to our teens?
Drinking and sex are important topics and are often talked about separately. We have the sex talk. And then the drinking talk.
What this study is telling us, is that at some point, these two conversations should happen together. We need to talk to our teens about the risks that are associated with having sex if they’ve been drinking. They need to know how alcohol will affect their capacity to make good decisions and to communicate those decisions clearly.
It’s important that they feel empowered when it comes to making decisions around sex, not scared or shamed or unsure. We want them to feel in control, strong and confident, and this will only come from conversation. Be open with the information, including the things they probably wouldn’t have thought about, so they can make strong, informed decisions that are good for them. There are a few ways to make this happen.
When you’re ready to have the chat …
Establish your credibility.
Without their trust, nothing we say will land on them. If they can see that you have an open mind about some things, they’ll be more likely to trust your judgement on the things you’re not so prepared to be open about. If you want to influence them about what not to do in relation to drinking and sex, they need to see that you’re open about what they can do. Decide on the things that are okay. Let them know that sex is a wonderful thing when the time is right, but only under certain conditions.
Let nothing be off limits.
Talk to them openly about sex and drinking and anything else they ask about. An open, curious mind is a wonderful thing. Encourage their curiosity, so they feel safe to come to you for information or guidance when they need it. If they ask a curly question that you don’t have the answer for, Google it with them. (A recent question in our house was how do ducks have sex (given their lack of visible hardware.) We Googled, and both learnt something new.)
Don’t give them rules, give them information.
The idea is to empower them, not control them, because they need to be able to make strong decisions on their own. Controlling them sends the message that we don’t trust their judgement or their capacity to make decisions and if we don’t trust them, they’ll have a harder time trusting themselves. This leaves them wide open for the one who comes along and tries to persuade them into making decisions that could hurt them.
They need to claim their voice in every decision that affects them.
They need to know they have a say in every decision that affects them, otherwise they’ll be looking for someone else to lead at that critical moment. They’re experimenting with their view of the world and their place in it. Ask for their opinions, their ideas, what they want and why it’s important. Support that when you can, and when you can’t, have your good reasons ready to share with them.
2 yes for yes, 1 no for no.
Let them know that sex can only be a good thing when both people want to be there. It takes two strong, clear ‘yes’s’ for the go ahead, and one ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ to stop.
What feels good or right for them is completely up to them.
They need to be able to trust their judgement around what’s right for them so they don’t get talked out of it. One of the best things we can give them is trust in their own intuition. Every time we point out that they’ve made a good decision, we’re building that trust. Of course they’ll get it wrong sometimes, we all do – it’s part of growing up well – but when that happens, help them understand how they got to that decision and what would be a better one.
Other people will want different things for different reasons. And that’s okay.
Difference is what makes humanity rich and wonderful. We want different things, we do different things, we think different things. Just because something is right for the one person, doesn’t mean it’s right for another. Teaching them to respect difference, particularly difference of opinion, will make it easier for them to hold firm and be okay with the times that they want something different to the person they’re with.
Sex is about feelings – and the emotional ones are the most important.
Sex is as much an emotional experience as it is a physical one. It’s something to be enjoyed, but that won’t happen if they don’t feel emotionally connected to the person they’re thinking about having sex with. If there is any doubt, disconnection or pressure, sex won’t feel good and it will likely drive a ton of regret. Teach them to check in with what they’re feeling before they agree to have sex, and to be guided by that. It’s their intuition and it knows what’s best for them.
Make sure it’s for the right reasons.
Sex won’t deepen an emotional connection if there isn’t one to there to begin with. Talk them through the reasons sex can end in heartache. One of the big ones is when people have sex in the hope that it will make someone fall in love with them. Another is because of the fear around what will happen if they say no.
Let them know they’re amazing. So is their body, and they should only ever share it with people who agree. They’ll always be too good to share the best parts of themselves with idiots who can’t see the obvious.
And finally …
Adolescence is a time of discovery and there are some things they need to discover on their own. It’s how they grow. As the adults in their lives, it’s our job to give them whatever we can to help them spread those amazing wings of theirs to full wingspan and stay safe while they do it. Sometimes they’ll listen to what we have to say. Sometimes they won’t. We were the same. Hopefully they’ll take the important things, though they won’t always make their appreciation for your wisdom and experience obvious. What’s important is that we give them what we can – information, support, space and trust – to empower them to make strong decisions that will nourish them, lift them and build them.