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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.