It's no coincidence that Romeo and Juliet, those iconic literary lovers, were teenagers swept up in their passion for each other; the secret meetings in defiance of their feuding parents' mores probably just fueled their fire.
Today's teens - impulsive, curious, hormonally charged - aren't so different from their long-ago Verona counterparts; however, peer pressure, hypersexualized entertainment and advertising, and sometimes lack of parental communication on the topic complicate teens' decisions about sex and love.
A new book, The Real Truth About Teens and Sex by Sabrina Weill, former editor-in-chief of Seventeen, draws on the author's vast experience as well as national surveys on teen attitudes and practices about sexual activity. You've heard about girls giving boys oral sex - but new to me was knowledge of “chicken parties” where a group of girls all “perform” on a group of guys in a circle, their heads bobbing in unison recalling chickens' awkward strut.
The down and dirty reality portrayed in this book may be disconcerting for parents who don't want to believe that their kids, or at least their kids' friends or classmates, are sexually active, much less engaging in the kinds of risky and, to my mind, morally bankrupt casual sex some teens practice.
But there is a glimmer of hope for parents who want their kids to avoid both the practical and emotional consequences of going too far too soon. Even teens themselves apparently do one thing and think another when it comes to sex. For example, while 61.6 percent of high school seniors surveyed said they have had sex, 81 percent of teenagers do not think teens should be sexually active, and 80 percent of teens who became sexually active between ages 12 and 14 regret having done so.
Developmentally, children ages 15-16 are only developing formal operational thinking, cites Weill. That means their capacity to make smart long-term decisions is still forming. Their bodies might be saying, yes, yes, yes, but their brains are saying yes, no, I don't know! And alcohol or drugs is often a factor in the “I really didn't mean to, but it just happened” scenario very common among teens having sex for the first time.
The good news is that parents do have an influence on their children's sexual choices, says Weill, also a parent of two. She offers strategies for how to help your teen make wise choices and stick to them. Here are a few:
First, family planning means more than using birth control. Families that plan ahead for everything from vacations to retirement savings - and expect their children to participate in planning, such as packing their own bags, saving money for college, budgeting time in a busy schedule - are giving their teens skills to plan about when and how they will choose to be sexually active.
The book also contains a series of tips titled “Talk the Talk: Teenagers Will Listen If You Say” These highlighted boxes throughout the book give you language to use when you want to broach uncomfortable subjects like how to handle what might be heightened expectations of prom night; what to do if your child experiences rejection from a boyfriend/girlfriend around sexual decisions; how to say no and avoid compromising situations, and more.
Finally, when it comes to teens and sex, once is not enough - one conversation about sex, that is. Research indicates that parents definitely have a positive influence on their teens' decisions about sexual activity - but only, reminds Weill, if you let them know what you value and hope for them. The Capulets and the Montagues blew it, but you don't have to. Maybe this Valentine's Day is the perfect occasion for a heart-to-heart with your teen about what's good about sex and why it might be a gift worth waiting for.