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Talking to Young People

Sep 27, 2011

Do you work with teenagers? If so, how often do you discuss sex?

Even if sexual health isn’t directly part of your practice, it’s good to keep it in mind when treating adolescents.

After all, adolescence is a hugely confusing time. Hormones are stepping into full gear and teens are faced with all sorts of feelings and situations that may be brand new. They need to learn what’s happening with their bodies and how to have mature, respectful relationships. And they need to learn how to handle adult issues like STD protection and avoiding unwanted pregnancy.

All this happens in a culture that is full of sexual messages – on TV, on billboards, in magazines. These messages aren’t always accurate. In addition, the sex education curriculum at school (if there is one) may not be thorough. Teens may feel that they can’t ask their parents questions. And they may rely on misinformation from peers, leading to serious mistakes down the road.

So it’s important to open yourself up to the conversation. Let’s look at some ways to make these talks easier.

Foster Trust

Help teens understand that it’s perfectly natural and normal to wonder about sex. It’s part of growing up. But also let them know that you respect them – and their privacy.

Have your discussions in private, not in an open area and not with their parents around. They may not want their parents to know they’re sexually active or that they’re curious. They may fear that their parents will make them break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend if there is sex involved.

Let teens know that they can trust you, but be clear about the privacy policies in your practice and where they stand as minors. Tell them what information will remain in the room and what could, by law, be reported to their parents.

Find out what they already know.

You might ask if their school offers sex education classes and what the curriculum is like. Or, you could ask what their friends are talking about. Such conversations can reveal whether they’re misinformed or misguided.

Encourage Questions

At the same time, give them the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns. A girl might be too nervous to discuss vaginal discharge with her mother, but could be willing to discuss it with you if given the opportunity. A boy might be thinking about having his first intercourse, but need information on how to use a condom properly.  

Teenagers may not feel comfortable asking questions right off the bat. Assure them that you and your colleagues are available to answer questions later, too. Let them know about other resources and be sure that any handouts or pamphlets can be discreetly tucked away in a pocket or purse.

Don’t Assume

Don’t assume a teen’s sexual orientation. Use terms like “partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Keep in mind that many teens are still figuring out their sexual orientation.

Watch Your Language

All generations of teenagers have their slang terms. What words does your teen population use to discuss sex? If a patient uses a word you’re not familiar with, ask for clarification. You might even keep a glossary of teen-speak for you and your colleagues to consult behind the scenes.

But this doesn’t mean you should use slang yourself. Doing so will make you lose your credibility. You can still use your own “doctorly” vocabulary in a casual, friendly manner and frequently check to make sure that patients understand you.

Help Them Solve Problems

Sternly lecturing about sex is unlikely to have an impact on teenagers. It’s easy to say “don’t do it” but teens need to understand how and why certain actions have consequences. Try giving them scenarios to think about. You might ask them how they’d handle a partner pressuring them for sex or what they would do if they had symptoms of an STD.

Stay Up To Date

Keep current with sexual health research. But also educate yourself on teenage trends. For example, “sexting” (sending sexually explicit messages or photos using mobile devices) is something you probably never did as a teen, but it might be common with the teens you serve.

When you’re talking with teens, you might expect to get eye rolls or gruff one-word answers to your questions. They might surprise you, however. Many teens want to discuss sex, but don’t feel comfortable approaching the other adults in their lives. Positioning yourself as a resource they can go to will encourage them to open up and to make good choices as they enter adulthood.