“Do you think it’s right for a teenager to just visit a gynaecologist when she feels well, isn’t pregnant and isn’t asking for birth control?” asked Marie, a woman in her fifties. She was talking to Francine, a woman in her early forties, and Ruth, in her mid thirties. “Ellen my eighteen-year-old told me she was going to see the gynaecologist to make sure she was ok internally. I don’t know, I only went to a gynaecologist when I was married and pregnant, not when I was a girl.”

Both Ruth and Francine agreed that an internal exam is part of routine health maintenance. Francine said, “My kids went when they were in their late teens for birth control. I think its right that young girls should go.” Francine seemed unsure.

Ruth spoke up. I plan to take Mary when she starts menstruating. I want her to get used to going to the gynaecologist for other than birth control. I want her to see it as caring for her body.”

“I come from the generation that only acknowledged sex after marriage” Marie said laughingly. “Vagina’s and their whereabouts were a secret. Getting your period was an embarrassment and “doing it” was only for bad girls. If you got pregnant, getting an abortion was almost impossible. In fact, it was almost unthinkable; a shotgun wedding was the usual solution.”

“By the time my children were teenagers, said Francine, the pill was available, abortion was legal and adolescent sexuality was discussed openly. Nobody talked in terms of sexual promiscuity, only sexual activity. As a parent I was aware of all this recognition of kids’ sexuality, but I didn’t know how to help my daughters handle it. I looked at the way I managed my sexuality and sex role and didn’t want them to suffer the ill effect I thought repression had on me. But I didn’t know how to handle the new information in the culture and meanwhile my kids got into problems. When I listen to you, Ruth, I feel jealous that you seem to have the blueprint that I lacked. You seem to be able to help your daughter deal with her body changes, her growing sexuality, without her feeling like some kind of machine that needs birth control.”

Sex, sex role and sexuality. The last few decades have witnessed dramatic shifts in values and attitudes, from the austerity of the Victorian to the raw candor of the Aquarian. Adults accept the disparity between then and now and search for new ways to be, ways that will help their children navigate past today’s perils while avoiding the hazards of yesterday.

In the fifties worried parents wrote to advice columnists expressing concerns about their child’s behaviour. Letters began with “My sixteen-year old daughter is going steady ….” and ended with “I fear she will be trapped into early marriage and responsibility.” Lifelong monogamy was the norm and “going steady” was practice for the real thing. Kids could rationalize “doing it” if they were going steady and in love. Parent’s greatest fears were about shotgun weddings and births before nine months of married life.

Girls were assumed to be taken advantage of, unless they were promiscuous, nymphomaniacs or just “easy”, while boys were assumed to be struggling with an all-engulfing sex drive that needed to be curbed. Prophylactics (condoms) were the only form of birth control available and were still illegal in some states. Young men felt the trauma of privately asking the druggist for “protection”. Repression was the order of the day.

Around 1960 sex began being viewed from a different vantage point. The pill became available and action and experimentation became the order of the day.

“Teen Sex, Too Much Too Soon?” featured an article stating that a lack of age-appropriate sexual behavior means more thirteen-year-old pregnancies, more 14-year-old kids contemplating abortion and more fifteen-year-old mothers on welfare rolls. Children are having to make difficult decisions and face major responsibilities for which they are unprepared.

“We are now grandparents. Our fourteen-year-old daughter has had a baby. We will raise him and love him. We are in great pain and shame, but we cannot in good conscience do otherwise. What bothers us now is that our fourteen-year-old child has had this womanly experience and we need to know how to communicate with her in a meaningful way.”

A generation of young people has grown up amid the chaos of our society’s changing values. Parents are now trying to raise children in unchartered territory without maps or navigational instruments. The sexual revolution has shattered old limits and has not yet defined new ones. When traditions give way suddenly, the void is quickly filled by the cheap and the sensational. Pornography, sexual exploitation of the young, sexual violence, prostitution and venereal disease are commonplace.

Parents of daughters suffer more since the liberation has not freed women from bearing the major consequences of sex. Most of us make pronouncements based on human rights or religious values on subjects such as birth control, single parenthood, homosexuality and teenage pregnancy, but when your own child is pregnant or homosexual or promiscuous, the abstractions and intellectualization fade away.

At a TOUGHLOVE workshop a mother told us of her struggle. Her 19-year-old son was totally ignoring a seventeen-year-old girl that he had made pregnant. The girl kept coming over to the house and the woman would try to get her son to talk to her, but instead he would leave. His mother felt she had to talk to and take care of this young woman. The other parents urged the mother to recognize that she was not responsible for the pregnancy and that instead she should demand that her son take responsibility.

Even if he refused, they felt it was important for her to let her son know where she stood on the issue. The woman agreed, went home and confronted her son. He took the young woman for an abortion, a solution that the reader may or may not like. Nonetheless, the solution was a choice based on the young couple’s own behavior, not someone else’s, and abortion was the solution they chose. Most of us hope that young people only need to get into trouble once to learn life’s lessons; unfortunately many people make the same mistakes more than once.

“Please send information to my sister. She needs help. I took her for an abortion last year and she thinks she is pregnant again now. She’s a really wonderful person, but thinks that every guy who shows her some attention is in love with her and she falls in love with him. I can understand one mistake, but not another and I can’t stand the thought of driving her to another abortion.”

Although abortion is not supposed to be a method of birth control, this young woman and her sister are facing a crisis and will not be open to facing a lecture on morality. If it’s true that contraceptives have to fit a person’s lifestyle, then for teens whose lives are unsettled, they don’t fit at all. The denial of their own sexuality and sexual behaviours leads to a lot of grief.

Many young people who feel lost in adolescence turn to sex for security, to prove to themselves that they are wanted and valuable or that they are grown up. They also indulge themselves simply because sex feels good. For whatever reasons, their sexual activity challenges parents who are struggling to reassess and define guidelines.

A TOUGHLOVE® group defined a set of guidelines to help parents decide where they stand:

  • Kids under sixteen are far too young for sexual intercourse
  • Kids over sixteen should be told what their responsibilities are towards themselves, their partners and their families, stressing that physical, social emotional maturity are healthier goals than teenage sexual activity
  • Tell your teenage kids what your views are about sex, even if they don’t particularly want to know
  • Let kids know that being sexual has its hurtful aspects
  • Remember that your kids may be embarrassed about confronting sexual issues and so may you, but you’re better embarrassed that sorry you didn’t say what was on your mind.

These guidelines were offered as an example for individual parents to modify for their use.

Children, even teenagers, need our protection. When we set limits, we are not merely curbing their freedom of choice, but we are making decisions about their welfare.

Sometimes we are wrong, sometimes too restrictive, sometimes to loose, but within the limits of our own life experience, we parents make judgements that we hope will protect our children from their lack of experience.

Our child’s physical development may trick and intimidate us. As one parent says, “I look at Seth and see a full-grown man and I feel overwhelmed by him. I know I must remember he is still a child and not mature enough for sex, but I haven’t been able to talk to him.” We forget to talk to the child inside the outer shell of maturity. That child hides behind the false bravado of drugs and alcohol, an abuse which often leads to irresponsible and uncaring sex. The physiological changes of adolescence create enough turmoil without the false liberation of impulses by mind altering substances.

With the help of drugs, young people act on their sexual fantasies and feelings, often in hurtful ways. Boys take on the aura of male conquest, while girls fulfill the desire for care and protection by having a man, fantasies that fit the old stereotypical view of macho men and subservient woman.

When a society cannot agree on what is age appropriate sexual behavior, when no limits or values are expressed, then sexual behavior becomes a personal choice from the smorgasbord of life. The cheapest and easiest values prevail. Sex becomes sensational and children become sex objects.

We as adults seem to have a hesitance about what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior and what doesn’t and there is confusion in our culture as to sexual limits.

Parents used to have the greatest say in their children’s sexual values, but today’s children are influenced by a variety of sources. Not only television, movies, magazines and other media, but government and private agencies intervene in matters of sexuality. Sex education, body care, contraceptive information, abortion information and counseling are available to young people under the age of eighteen.

The issue of confidentiality for young people under the age of eighteen is difficult.

Agencies such as Planned Parenthood encourage teenagers to develop their own secrets apart from the family. There is power in having secrets. Such confidentiality, supported by the power of government agencies, suggests that kids are at least their parent’s equals and this is a big step into the adult world. While it may be a sign of responsibility for a kid to go to an agency for competent help, how responsible is it really when neither the agency nor the kid assumes legal or financial responsibility? If the teenager decides to have a child or an abortion with the help of the agency, the young person does not become a ward of the agency. The agency does not support the new mother and infant, does not help them manage their lives, does not supply medical care. Parents are still responsible.

There are times when we as parents have to change and learn to tolerate sexual values in our children that we personally find uncomfortable, simply because we want to continue having relationships with them, but we do not have to tolerate those values without qualification or condition. What’s tough is facing our feelings and emotions when confronted by the sexuality of our children.

A good friend of ours recently joked that she’s no longer a liberal. Her 23-year-old informed her that she was a lesbian and the news shocked her right out of her tolerance. She always knew she could accept someone else’s child being gay, but her own kid’s revelation put her in a tailspin. Another couple came to a TOUGHLOVE® group for help in changing their son’s sexuality. They were upset that he was gay. Some group members suggested counseling, until someone asked the mother about other aspects of her son’s life. She said that he was 27, had a master’s degree, was a practicing engineer, made a good living and lived in a nice apartment. Obviously he was not an acting-out kid, but an adult who chose to be gay and was taking responsibility for his own life and lifestyle.

The parents had to be assured that it was not their fault that he was gay and that they did not have to be ashamed.

What do you do when your 20-year-old daughter comes home and tells you she’s chosen to be a single parent and doesn’t want a husband? How can the child want to make life so hard for herself? It’s a whole new ball game for families when the crisis is theirs:

when it’s their kid, their family and they have to face these major issues. No matter what choices are made emotions, ideas, thoughts, values and relationships undergo change as the family reassesses itself and seeks a new balance.

The sexual choices our kids make have repercussions that challenge us and our values. We are torn between our desire for a close, loving family and behaviour in our children that we don’t like. Our old attitudes and values have been blown wide open and new family structures and ways of being sexual have emerged. Families have to deal with their conflicts, the feelings and the issues and TOUGHLOVE helps them along the way.

Taken from TOUGHLOVE® SOLUTIONS by Phyllis York, David York and Ted Wachtel