Keep on Asking: The Lifelong Learning of the Askable Adult
By Lisa Olcese, Executive Director
March 31, 2016
Studies show that having a trusted, or “askable,” adult is an important protective factor for young people when it comes to sexual health. Youth with an Askable Adult are more likely to delay the onset of sexual activity, have fewer sexual partners, use effective birth control when they do have sex, and avoid drugs or alcohol during sex. These are powerful results that can positively influence young people for the rest of their lives.
So if we know talking to young people about sex is so important, why do we still hear false assumptions like “talking about sex encourages sex” or “girls are more responsible for condom use than boys” or “boys will be boys” yet “girls need to be careful”?
Why is it that adults find the idea of having these conversations so difficult, taboo, and downright offensive? I do believe that these inhibitions and misperceptions are rooted in good intentions - we want to protect those we love from the harsh realities of the world - and there’s also a strong dose of ignorance, fear and our own internalized shame that all block open lines of communication about these sensitive topics. Youth, however, are the ones who will suffer, even though more than half of young people report being able to talk about sex and relationships with their parents if there is a catalyst (like a relevant movie).
I want to emphasize here that I, too, was once a teenager. I made my parents nervous. I took some risks that were idiotic in hindsight. And I was generally very responsible when I had access to accurate information to guide my decisions. Now, as a loving aunt, godmother and professional in the field of youth sexual health, my life is based on this understanding, and starts with a positive view of young people as thoughtful, curious, fallible humans. This means that, yes, sometimes they will make questionable decisions - just like we all do as we navigate through life. But more often, when given the right context, information, resources, and positive expectations, young people make responsible decisions.
If we want adults to be strong resources for young people navigating adolescence and early adulthood, then we must understand what barriers prevent them (us) from stepping into this role. We need to take an honest and vulnerable look at our own insecurities, and understand if they are rooted in not knowing how to talk with youth, or being afraid of not having the answers, or our own deep-seated shame. Why do we feel this way toward sex and sexuality? Perhaps it is our lack of understanding or information, or maybe negative experiences from our past. Maybe we were just taught to feel that way - from our parents, from school, from our community. Or maybe we just want more knowledge before talking to the youth in our life. Whatever the case may be, the ultimate question is “how can I most effectively support young people in my life, instill confidence and encourage conversation, when I still have my own questions and doubts about sexuality and sexual health?”
Whether you are a parent, a youth serving professional, or just someone who wants to be there for the youth in your life, here are six things to keep in mind when preparing for conversations about sex and sexuality.
1) It’s ok to not know everything. You don’t need to be an expert to have productive conversations with young people. Think through what questions you have, and give yourself time to understand them.
2) Be aware of your responses. You know how annoying and difficult it is to talk with that over-reactive friend who judges your problems and tells you what to do? Yep. Young people don’t like that either. You will be much more influential if you are an open, empathetic, and non-reactive listener. For example, if they ask you about birth control, this does not automatically imply that they are sexually active (which is usually where the adult brain automatically jumps). They probably are asking because they want information. And this is exactly what we want – youth going to trusted adults so that they can get accurate information!
3) Reach out to other parents, trusted adults and youth-serving professionals about the questions, fears, shock and other reactions you have in your adult role. You can get support without getting into your own personal details. Try reaching out to the school nurse or your own health care provider. Or, check out Colorado Youth Matter’s family resources for tools, research and programs.
4) If you do feel shame or uncertainty when addressing these issues, self-reflect. Give yourself some grace around working with your own sex and sexuality. Obviously, this is not something to share with a young person but it is worthy of exploring and resolving for yourself – with your partner, your best friend, your therapist…the conversations will really start to evolve, among adults and youth alike, when we detangle sex from shame.
5) Don’t be afraid when youth ask about your personal history. Sometimes young people do ask questions like “when did you first have sex?” or “how many people had you had sex with at my age?” These questions are actually opportunities to talk about the deeper values here. Ask, “What are signs that tell someone they are ready to have sex?” or “what kinds of things should someone talk with about their partner before they even have sex?” instead.
6) Be honest with young people about what you do or don’t know. You don’t need to know the exact symptoms of chlamydia, so don’t make them up. Instead, you can model honesty to admit what you don’t know and curiosity to find answers. Ultimately, it will be more important that you share support and compassion than it is for you to know everything there is to know about sexual health. Find resources that will help both of you further your understanding, and take this opportunity for mutual learning. Again, visit Colorado Youth Matter’s resources, or resources like Kids Health, Bedsider, or Sex, Etc.
7) Be curious about all the elements in the young person’s life – their sexuality is just one aspect of who they are. Validate their questions, support their search for answers, and leave the door open for further conversation down the road.
Yes, having these conversations with the young people in your life can be challenging. But with the right approach, it can also foster growth while opening up a positive and honest line of communication between you. And odds are good that you’ll both learn something.