Some 70 parents attended a half-day workshop Saturday, at Westfield High, to learn about "The Teen Species-Up Close and Personal." And what they heard was eye-opening.
"She was incredible," said parent Penny Douskalis after attending therapist Maryann Sheridan's workshop on risky teen-age sex. "A lot of what she touched on is so real. It'll help me talk to my teenagers now, the way I wish I'd have known to talk to my 32-year-old daughter when she was their age."
She appreciated the workshop, she said, because parents "don't want to be naive. You can't trust that the values you think you're instilling in your children are there. So it's good to talk with other parents and hear their perspectives."
Following a 9 a.m. speech by mental-health counselor Fran Herron to start things off, both mothers and fathers attended hour-long sessions on topics including risky sexual behavior, eating disorders, Internet dangers, and teens and finances.
Sponsoring the event were the Westfield Community Coalition, Stone Middle School PTA and Westfield High PTA. It was for adults only, in the hopes of increasing parental awareness of teen issues and preventing problems.
Sheridan, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Oakton, sparked a lively, give-and-take discussion in her workshop on risky sexual behavior.
"Where one begins is with one's self, and that's true of lots of things in parenting," she said. "Figure out where you are about your own sex life because you communicate it, even if you're silent. But communicating is better than being silent."
First of all, she asked parents, "What have you taught your children about what's normal?"
"Abstinence," replied one mom. "Experimenting with others your age, but not with those older than you," said another. But a young woman, 21, studying the subject in college in preparation for a career in this field, told parents, "The abstinence thing doesn't work because sex is always going to come up. So I tell my teen-age cousin not to do anything she's not comfortable with."
One parent said girls should be able to say "no." Added another: "Sex is a bond — It's like Super Glue. The person you have sex with will always remain in your mind, so [teens should be aware of that when deciding they're] ready to have sex."
"There are emotional and physiological changes that continue happening to teens," said Sheridan. "So when is the right time [for them to begin engaging in sexual activities?" asked a mom?
"IT DEPENDS on your own values and what you've relayed to them," Sheridan answered. "Between ages 16 and 19 comes the cognitive-development piece, but it really solidifies around age 20. [That's] when they feel confident that they're making the right choices."
She advised parents to praise their children when they see them being reflective and making good choices so they'll continue to do so. She also said parents need to learn a new communication style.
"Share your own mistakes and vulnerabilities," said Sheridan. "The more we bring of our candid self into our relationships with our teen-agers, the better it is for them. They see that their parents aren't as perfect as they thought."
She said parents shouldn't just have the "big talk" about sex as a formal, one-time thing with their children, but should do so casually whenever windows of opportunity arise. One mom said she discusses it with her teens while driving them places in the car. And when teens talk about it with them, said Sheridan, "I tell parents to say, 'Gee, that's interesting,' to get them to say more."
She also presented some sobering statistics that definitely caught most of the parents off guard. When one mother asked when children begin having sexual intercourse, they were stunned to hear that some start as early as sixth grade.
"At one time, I had a run of sixth-graders who lost their virginity at age 12," said Sheridan. "That's when girls are the most vulnerable." She said boys' most vulnerable ages are 13-14, and they experience more pressure to have sex between ages 13-15.
"Well over 50 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls have had sexual intercourse by the time they graduate from high school," she said. And according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta], better than half of those teens contract an STD [sexually transmitted disease]."
"When they have sex with someone, it's like having sex with everyone [that person] has had sex with," continued Sheridan. "Most vulnerable to HIV are heterosexual females."
Nancy Bennett of the Westfield Community Coalition noted that the Public Health Department is seeing an increased number of STDs caused by oral sex among ages 11-22. Added Sheridan: "Almost universally, all the kids I talk to don't think oral sex is sex."
SHE SAID they should realize that sex is an "incredible gift," an opportunity "to be one" with someone special to them and "an expression of love."
Then a mom said she told her daughter about her own, first sexual experience and how "it wasn't like it's shown on TV and in movies. [I told her] how I regretted giving [my virginity] away then and that she should treasure herself and keep that [intact until the time is right]."
Sheridan said parents should teach their children to set safe limits for themselves. And she shared a strategy that worked for her. "If any of my daughters or their friends found themselves in any position they didn't want to be in, they'd call and I'd go get them — no questions asked," she said. "Other [teens] who got punished in those situations began to lie to their parents."
A parent asked what they should do when they hear upsetting things about a child. "If they're going to hurt others or themselves, then you encourage them to tell their parents," replied Sheridan.
"How do you tell parents about their child's sexual behavior?" asked another. "For example, you saw their daughter and her boyfriend go into their house alone at 3 p.m."
This time, other parents in the workshop responded to the question. They agreed that the teens' parents should be told but, warned one mom, "You have to be able to receive [that same] information about your own child." And, added another, "You have to be prepared to have it blow up in your face" [when the teens' parents get angry at you or don't believe what you said]."
Then a parent asked if teens should be confronted after a mom or dad finds condoms in their room. "I'd be curious and say, 'Gee, which friend are you holding them for?" replied Sheridan. Added the parent: "That's what [I'd think], anyway — [that] they must be somebody else's."
"What do you do when your children ask you about your own sexual experiences?" asked another. "Ask them what they're most interested in knowing," said Sheridan. "When in doubt, answer a question with another question. Don't begin a question with the word 'why' because it puts the person on the defensive. Instead, use 'what' — it's gentler and makes you re-phrase it."
A PARENT suggested that, if teens don't feel comfortable talking to their parents, they should be referred to another adult whom they trust. However, added Westfield PTSA president Birgit Retson, "Parents need to make sure their children know that they're in control."
Sheridan then dealt briefly with the topics of pornography, childhood sexual abuse and date rape. "As kids are exposed to pornography prematurely, it damages their beliefs about sex," she said. "And very often, that piece is carried with them and eventually leads to unhealthy sexual practices and beliefs."
She noted that four in 10 children have probably been sexually abused or have had a "small trauma" somewhere along the line. And she said provocative dressing, overly affectionate behavior, "habitual, obsessive" masturbation and, sometimes, early sexual behavior can all be symptomatic of childhood sexual abuse. In these cases, she advises parents to seek professional help with the matter.
As for date rape, Sheridan said one in four women have been victims. "Don't just talk to daughters about it, but to sons, too," she said. "And tell them how drugs and alcohol go hand-in-hand with it."
She also stressed that whole, healthy relationships function on many levels, not just physically. "I ask my daughter, 'Do you also have conversations with your boyfriend?'" said a mom. "I ask her, 'How do you know who you want to love, if you don't have an [actual] relationship with this person?'"
As the workshop ended, Sheridan passed around some sheets of paper and had the parents each break off a tiny bit. She then told them to give it to their children. "Each encounter they have, they give a little piece of themselves away," she explained. "And when the right person comes along, what will they have left?"