"There's more information coming at kids faster, and at the same time, families have so many activities that there are fewer opportunities to sit down and talk about what they're experiencing," says Elizabeth Casparian, PhD, executive director of HiTOPS, a youth health center in Princeton, New Jersey. "I don't think parents fully realize the risks and challenges today's kids are facing." And teens are taking risks: Forty-six percent of ninth- to twelfth-graders report having had sexual intercourse, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (The older the teen, the more likely he or she is to have had sex.) Yet other research shows that half of the parents of sexually experienced eighth- to eleventh-graders are unaware that their teens have had sex.
That today's kids are putting themselves in physical danger -- at risk for pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) -- is only part of the problem. What also troubles experts are the emotional causes and consequences. The most obvious example of this is hooking up. "Kids are engaging in sexual behavior, looking for fun without any of the emotional baggage," says Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both (Riverhead Books). "They may interact with one person once or many times. It can range from kissing to oral sex to intercourse and anything in between. The partner may be someone a kid just met. Or the two may already know each other -- and become 'friends with benefits.'" This use of sex as recreation worries experts, because of the potential for psychological repercussions kids don't anticipate. "Girls end up very depressed," says Stepp. "They think they decided not to feel anything for the guy, but they do. When nothing happens after the hookup, they feel bad about themselves."What's the Answer?
There is a powerful antidote to the information glut and the too-much-too-soon behavior: You. "Teens consistently say that their parents have the most influence over their decisions about sex -- not the media, not their boyfriend or girlfriend, and not their best buds in school," says Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "But if parents don't step up to the plate, teens are going to get information that's unedited, without context, and often incorrect -- from wherever they can find it." Not ideal. So are you ready to have the first and last word on how your children learn about sex, relationships, and intimacy? These guidelines will help you give your kids what they need.