Teenagers (eek!): Tips for educators interacting with the pubescent.

Think about yourself as a teenager.

What were you like? What was it like to be 13 to 18 years old? Typically, images of an uncomfortable stage in life pop into mind: Pimples, crushes, and emotions—it can be challenging to navigate a changing body and mind. Teenagers have one foot in innocent childhood and the other in sexual adulthood. Youth are forced to tackle a lot of confusing messages about sexuality from the media, from adults, and their peers. Educators can follow the tips below to gain insight for how to interact with adolescents in the classroom, so they can achieve the most successful sexual health interactions:

  1. Promote, not prevent, education.

Teenagers probably feel awkward talking about sexuality, but also want to know the inside scoop. Have teenagers share the information they already know, it is empowering for them and a good place to assess what base-line information they have. The educator  is then able to supplement the discussion and correct any incorrect information — this can lead to great teachable moments. Educators and mentors want to promote, not prevent, education and knowledge about sexual health (Hedgepeth & Helmich,1996).  Setting a tone in the classroom of respect, medical accuracy, and scientific honesty are foundational points for informed youth opinions (Roper, 2011). Sexual health is a basic human right, and youth especially, have a relevant reason to learn about it, both for their own body care, and also to discover ways to navigate in the world (Taverner, 2005). Educators can strive to help young people understand they have choices regarding their sexuality.

  1. Be inclusive in language and word definitions.

Using comprehensive language is a significant classroom component when talking and asking questions to teens, since it is vital to their participation and acceptance (Roper, 2011). For example, “inserting the penis into the body” is much more inclusive, but just as effective as communicating, “inserting the penis into the vagina.” As a result, all the students in the classroom feel seen, validated, and respected regardless of their gender, orientation, or sexual preferences (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). Ask students to think about questions such as: how is sex defined?  or, what is virginity?  Inevitability there will be lots of varying opinions and a rich discussion with various viewpoints to engage in and a good time to point out that often definitions mean different things to different people. Young people have sex for the first time roughly at the age of seventeen (Guttmacher, 2014), but teens are all going to have different boundaries, identities, and backgrounds regarding sexuality. Often this is where the learning and social changes begin—thoughts begin to expand as they acknowledge different views and values  besides their own exist in the world. Gender norms, sexual identity, sexual expression, and female oppression all are topics that could be addressed. Teaching a comprehensive definition of sexuality will help empower teenagers (Taverner, 2005).

3. Their brains are not fully developed.

The teenage brain is not fully developed.  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that asks, “Is this a good idea?” Teenagers have sluggish connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain  (Knox, 2010). Teens literally cannot think as clearly and logically as adults. It is also normal and developmentally appropriate for teens to be self- indulgent and concerned with only themselves (Knox, 2010). Teens cannot see far beyond themselves, which is why inside jokes, seeking acceptance, and peers are so crucial for them (Newman, 2012). Teenagers are in an odd transition time between child and adulthood. They still have limited control over many aspects of their lives, but they are dealing with higher expectations and responsibility, mixed with trying out adult behaviors, such as working, smoking, and sexual activity for the first time (Newman, 2012). As a result, teenagers are developing their own ideas about sexuality, their bodies, and morals (Vernacchio, 2014).

  1. Teenagers Take Risks.

Risk taking is an essential part of their learning and growth at this developmental stage (Newman, 2012). A certain amount of trial and error is necessary to emerge ready for adulthood (Newman, 2012). Sending a sexy text, asking someone out, or not getting caught doing….fill-in- the blank here… are all risks that teens take on a regular basis. Educators want to equip teenagers to make healthy risk-taking decisions (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). Everyone has made less than ideal choices a few times along the way.  Risk taking and sexuality are lifelong endeavors that do not end after high school.  As an educator, try to focus on life-enhancing parts of sexuality, not just the consequences (Vernacchio, 2014). Youth are going to take risks and make their own decisions. Having access to information will help them make the most informed decisions they can (Gowen, 2003). Educators should strive to celebrate, not shame, sexuality for youth (Morano, 2010).

  1. Sending sex positive messages to youth is important.

Sex is a good positive thing! It is normal and natural, ideally pleasurable, for everyone involved, and it should feel good, which is why people all over the world do it. Sexuality can also be challenging and confusing. Teenagers should learn that advocating for their needs is fundamental; they know their body better than anyone else. It is also a tricky balance because teens are getting a lot of negative images about their bodies and gender roles they are trying to assimilate (Roper, 2011). Their bodies, minds and emotions are worth learning about, experiencing, and advocating for in a sex positive way (Vernacchio, 2014).

Teenagers have a lot to grapple with in their daily lives dealing with friends, family, homework, and hormones. These five tips are both reminders of where teenagers are coming from developmentally, and applicable ways to help them effectively navigate through adolescent sexuality.



Gowen, L. (2003). Making Sexual Decisions The Ultimate Teen guide. Lanham, Maryland. Scarecrow Press.

Guttmacher Institute. (2014). American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health. Retrieved from: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-ATSRH.html#2

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York: New York University Press.

Knox, R. (2010). The Teenage Brain: It’s just not grown up yet. Retrieved from:             http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468

Morano, S. (2010). Say it with a smile-Bringing youth sexually positive messages. Deeper Well Conference. Lecture conducted from Des Moines, IA.

Newman, B., & Newman, P. (2012). Development through life: A psychosocial approach (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Roper, M. (2011). Healthy teen relationships: Using values and choices to teach sex education. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

Taverner, B. (2005). Sex Ed 101 A collection of Sex Education Lessons. Morristown, New Jersey. Planned Parenthood Of Greater New Jersey, Inc.

Vernacchio, A. (2014). For goodness sex: Changing the way we talk to teens about sexuality,values, and health. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

9 responses to “Teenagers (eek!): Tips for educators interacting with the pubescent.

  1. I wish every teacher was aware of these five crucial tips. Personally, I may have had an easier awkward-stage if teachers in my school were more sensitive to the issues teens face. Your point, “promoting not preventing education” is what really stuck out to me. Promotion may be setting up an inclusive space, tailoring lesson plans to fit individual needs or simply, the encouragement of students in the classroom. Unfortunately, there is no mass-email list that includes every single teacher. However, if sexuality educators can acknowledge and incorporate these tips, maybe it’ll catch on!

  2. I think the point about teenagers’ brains not being full developed was excellent. Most teens think of losing their virginity as a gateway to adulthood/womanhood/manhood, but they don’t think about the consequences like pregnancy, STI’s. They’re so focused on just “doing it” to be like their peers, that without the right sex ed, there could be a lot of unsafe sex going on. I think if sex educators for teenagers stimulate brainstorming sessions to explore the teens perspectives on sexuality, their bodies, their morals, and more then teens should be able to start making connections on creating positive sexual experiences.

  3. Bea, I loved this post. Your five tips are SO crucial when it comes to providing sex education to teens. The last tip especially stuck out to me – “Sending sex positive messages to youth is important.” Sex positive messages are something that have unfortunately been lost in sex education due to how stigmatized the content is portrayed to be and how sex negative many educators seem to be – up until recently. As modern sex educators, we need to do our best in terms of shifting that negative approach towards a positive one, and I am so glad you highlight that. It is essential that we continue to talk about sex positive messages in our work in order to sustain this idea of positivity and continue to encourage positive sexuality development within all of our students 🙂

  4. These are fantastic tips that any education working with the teenage population should know. I particularly appreciate the attention you gave to risk taking, and how this is a normal behavior for teenagers that can be safely encouraged rather than shamed. Acknowledging that risk taking behaviors are not deviant may eliminate taboo of such behaviors and help teenagers assess the risks that are acceptable (or not) in their own lives. Understanding that teenagers are not adults, yet that they seek the autonomy that adults have is an integral piece to educating this population. Any activity that promotes agency while still placing the educator in the role of imparting essential and accurate information will surely help accomplish this. Kudos!

  5. Awesome pictures! I love the wording you used about promoting not preventing education. I sometimes forget how much teenagers share information with each other, information can spread like wildfire. Making sure the right information is spreading is important. I also have not heard the risk taking argument written that clearly before. I’ve never really thought about it like that. “Risk taking is an essential part of their learning and growth at this developmental stage” is a great quote to fall back on. Our society spends so much time telling our teens not to take risks ever, we forget that is important to their progression into adulthood. Acknowledging that teens will take risks is like acknowledging that toddlers will fall down when they try to walk/run. Great job.

  6. I’m going to echo what a lot of people are saying here because I really think you did a great job with this. Not only was the content interesting and important (which I’ll get to later), your format, images, and style were on point. This is what a blog post should look like. Broken down into digestible pieces so it’s not intimidating, humor when possible, a approachable language. This post was super fun to read.

    Now the the content. I think it’s really funny that it seems like most sex educators forget what it’s like to be a teenager. Instead of trying to struggle through content, it’s important to meet teenager where they are which is THINKING ABOUT SEX ALL THE TIME. It’s something that they are often comfortable talking about with their friends, so it is on the educator to make it comfortable to talk about in class. I think you provide some really great ways of doing that. I’ll echo what others have said about the importance of addressing neurodevelopment and teenage tendency toward risk-taking. With these facts being the reality, it becomes even more important to the educator to have an approachable and rateable way to communicate with teens.

    Finally, I really liked your tips for inclusive language. I think the earlier we start teaching people about being inclusive the more likely it is for that language to just become a part of the cultural vernacular.

  7. I think a critical aspect of adolescence is questioning if that individual is “normal”. Puberty changes their body from what they knew for 10-12 years to something totally different. As an adult change is hard, can you imagine if you were going through numerous changes at the same time? Adolescents are going through all of these intense changes and want to be validated. They are worried about if they are normal, even if they haven’t hit puberty while the rest of the class has. Or possibly the opposite situation. Being validated can minimize the negative emotions that come with not feeling “normal”. This is a great read with valuable information! Food for thought.

  8. You chose to tackle the teens and you conquered! This is a great post. My sister is 17, and has A LOT of questions for me, explaining that her sex ed in school is excruciatingly subpar. I think back to my (poor) sex ed from middle and high school and wonder why I never asked more questions. I love how you mention to encourage the teens to think about sex from all perspectives (“Ask students to think about questions such as: how is sex defined? or, what is virginity?”). That would definitely promote a discussion, and once learners start to talk, they might feel more open to ask. Furthermore, I (and all of us at CHSS) am all for sex positivity. Without that, I would not imagine students would feel comfortable to open up about their own questions and comments.

  9. Bea,
    First off, I love the pictures you used. They really go hand-in-hand with the information you’ve provided. The first thing that stuck out to me in your post is the need for inclusive language, even if it involves changing just one word in a sentence. The example that you used-“inserting the penis into the body” – is an amazing example of the small ways in which we can alter our language choices to be more inclusive. This specific example is not anything I’ve EVER thought of and it’s making me consider what other words I can substitute in order to make my vocabulary more inclusive.
    I love the way you organized the tips you presented. Teenagers are such a difficult population to connect with if you are not a part of that group. I also enjoyed your acknowledgment of the fact that teenagers take risks. This is often something that’s brushed under the rug, as it’s easier for some parents and educators to deny that this happens. Also, your suggestion on emphasizing the normalcy of having an interest in sex is a really wonderful suggestion. Great work!

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