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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

Your teen DOES want your opinion

By Cheryl Allen
Gannett News Service

So you think that your eyeball-rolling, peer-absorbed adolescent could care less about your opinion on, well, anything — much less your two cents on sex.

Gannett News Service
Well that bit of change may be worth more than parents think.

Most teens say that it would be easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they felt they could have more open and honest discussions about such topics. That's according to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, D.C.

The survey also showed that six in 10 adolescents, ages 12 to 19, said that their parents are their role models for healthy, responsible relationships. "Parents need to know that when it comes to young people's decisions about sex, their influence has not been lost to peers and popular culture," says Bill Albert, campaign spokesperson.

Still some parents are uneasy when it comes to the topic, says Lorraine DeJong, assistant professor of education at Furman University.

"Parents are sometimes squeamish about issues related to their comfort level with their bodies and privacy," says DeJong, who is also a mother of two teenage daughters. "If they're not open in those areas, it may be more difficult to discuss sexual issues when the child reaches puberty." Or their uneasiness may be related to the fact that their own parents avoided open discussion about the subject.

But sex education is more than just talking about sex and birth control, DeJong says. It involves discussion about love, relationships, values, risks and responsibility. "Parents have to be involved in an ongoing dialogue."

It doesn't hurt to start that dialogue well before adolescence begins. No, you don't have to go into scientific detail with a preschooler, for example, but drop the stork delivery story.

Try to be as honest as possible in simple terms and feel comfortable in appropriately labeling body parts, for example. It's an evolving process, DeJong says — from learning about various body parts in the preschool years to experiencing body changes during adolescence.

DeJong suggests parents read about those changes with their children. Resources can be found at the library or in literature from a doctor's office. Other teachable moments may be when a child inquires about a movie scene or a news report. "Get the child's point of view," she says. "It's never too late to engage them in dialogue about movies, television and current events and things like that."

And if you don't know the answer to a question, it's OK, says Joyce Klein, executive director for the Greenville (S.C.) Council for the Prevention of Teen Pregnancy Inc.

"Many parents feel as though they don't have the courage to say that because their kids will laugh at them and think that they're dumb, but that's not how it really works."

So how does it work?

There are no hard and fast rules. Every child as well as every family is different.

Still one thing is clear, Klein says. "When parents don't talk, then their children pick up their education from other places and it could be from people who don't have the same type of family values."

A workshop offers parents ways to convey their values. "Can We Talk?" is part of a national initiative sponsored by the National Education Association Health Information Network and is designed to help parents better communicate with their children, especially on touchy issues such as sex, Klein says.

During free workshops, parents learn to discuss topics with their children including self-esteem, puberty, sexuality and peer pressure. "It's very interactive. It's not lecture."

It's often conducted in sessions with 12 to 20 participants. There is role playing in which one participant will act as the parent and the other will act as teenager. "We try to encourage them to remember what it was like when they were at that age," Klein says.

Participants also work together in small groups analyzing and writing in cartoon captions. One cartoon might show a girl standing in front of a mirror. Another one depicts a girl and boy riding in a car passing a billboard that says, "Don't Do Drugs." Participants are encouraged to write what they think the characters are thinking or saying, Klein said. They can take the cartoons home and discuss them with their children. "There's not a prescribed answer. The whole idea is to be an interactive workshop and to enhance the parent's role.

"They're learning from each other," Klein says. "You can laugh together, and that's so important because the laughter breaks the anxiety level."