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Talk on Teens and Sex

Workshop for parents on Risky Sexual Behavior at Westfield High.

The more than 50 parents attending the recent workshop at Westfield High on "Risky Sexual Behavior" introduced themselves, told the ages of their children and spoke frankly about what worried them.

One mother, for example, said, "I have a teen-age daughter who doesn't think that anything but intercourse is sex." Then, guided by Maryann Sheridan, an Oakton-based, licensed marriage and family therapist, the parents explored this and other concerns they have about their children.

THEY WERE participating in part two of "The Teen Species — Up Close and Personal," presented by the Westfield Community Coalition, the Westfield PTSA and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. And Sheridan, who's raised three daughters, shared her knowledge and expertise with them.

"Teen-agers are having sex," she said. "A 14-year-old girl told me she'd been sexually active since age 12."

Complicating things further, said Sheridan, are teen developmental stages — including mood swings and the search for their own identity, sexuality and independence. To have a better idea of what their children are doing and feeling, she advised parents to get to know their children's friends — and their friends' parents.

"Trust what you know, and use it," she said. "Research shows that, the more informed kids are, the better choices they make. Get them involved in youth groups so they get another perspective from adults they trust."

Sheridan told parents that "this whole process begins with you. What are your values when it comes to sex and sexuality? And do you walk your own walk? How healthy is your sex life, right now? And how do you share what is healthy sex with your child?"

One mother asked how to tell her child what to do when she, herself, didn't always make the right choices as a teen-ager. But Sheridan assured her that, the more a parent can be vulnerable with a child, the better for their communication.

"By sharing your mistakes, it doesn't mean you're giving them permission to do it," she explained. "You talk about how it left you feeling and how it impacted you later in life." And a father suggested the mother talk about it as if it were a friend's experience, and not her own.

Sheridan encouraged parents to look at the content of teen magazines. For instance, she said, "I just saw one advising teens how to have better sex." Besides that, said Sheridan, "It's really easy to access sexual information and pornography, beyond our wildest dreams, via the Internet." So, she warned, "It's also critical to know where kids are, in that regard — especially sons."

She then related some national statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta: 50 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls have had sex before leaving high school. "And 50-79 percent of these teens end up with an STD," she said. "That's huge."

Underscoring her point, Sheridan told parents she'd learned there's a recent case of an HIV-positive teen-ager in a Fairfax County public high school. "Everyone a kid sleeps with, sleeps with everyone that kid has slept with — and it's a pretty scary thing," she said. "And in the long run, it makes the marriage bed pretty crowded."

On the average, she said, "After a [teen-age] couple has sex, the relationship lasts only three more weeks. So how do we help kids make the right choice of partner?"

SHERIDAN SAID it's important to help kids preserve some sense of sexual integrity via self respect and their reputation. However, she noted, "Most kids tend to lose their virginity in their parents' home."

Added a mom: "... between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. [when, often, kids are left unsupervised]."

A father said he heard his middle-school son talking about "sex parties where kids have sex with lots of different partners in one evening," and the father was worried. "If they're gonna do it, I want to make sure he has a condom," he said.

According to one mother, when her son attended Stone Middle School and there was lots of construction nearby, "He said they'd stop at the construction shacks near Sully Station and have sex on the way home from school." Added another mom: "... in the woods behind the church."

One mother said teens are "having lots of oral sex, but not thinking of it as sex." And another mom asked, "How can we share our values with them when they don't want to discuss sex with us?"

"Start by talking about how to choose safe relationships," replied Sheridan. "And it's really important that they have a safe relationship with you and know they can come to you and share what they and their friends are doing — without fear of punishment consequences."

She also advised them to take advantage of "teachable moments" whenever they come up — tiny opportunities to relay valuable lessons to their children. And to find out what their teens are into sexually, she said, "Tell your kids you're curious; ask them about their friends."

One mother said she learned about a certain type of condom while driving her son somewhere. And instead of asking him directly about his own sexual behavior, said Sheridan, the mom could have asked, "What friends of yours are using condoms?"

A MOM said she talks to her daughter about sex, "along the way," as she grows up. And another mom advised parents to "teach girls what they're saying about themselves when they dress provocatively."

One mother noted how some girls are wearing "sex bracelets" with different colors signifying how far they're willing to go sexually. "And those bracelets are in the elementary schools now," said another mom.

Sheridan warned that a survey revealed that one in three high-school or college-age girls had experienced violence in a dating relationship. "That's a real danger," she said. "Risky sexual behavior among adolescents is very much connected to dating violence and date rape — and domestic violence is rooted here, too."

She then recommended parents read these books: "Safe People (And Avoid Those that Aren't)" by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend; "But I Love Him" by Jill Murray (protecting girls from controlling, abusive, dating relationships); and "The Five Love Languages with Teen-Agers" by Gary Chapman (how different people love and like to be loved).

Afterward, Westfield Community Coalition Chairman Nancy Bennett said the workshop was important because "there's a lot in the media about kids experimenting with sex. But parents have to have that discussion with them — and they need to have it early and repeatedly as their child develops and grows into relationships with others."