We sat down with Dr. Dolly Klock, a Board Certified Family Physician, to talk about five misconceptions that you might have about your teenagers when it comes to body image and “the sex talk”. Listen in, as we learn how to talk about bodies and sex with teens in the digital age.
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Key Takeaways for Having an Ongoing and Healthy “Sex Talk” with Kids
- The sex talk is a series of many conversations that cover different little tidbits depending on your child’s developmental stage. The goal for parents shouldn’t be to gear up for one all-encompassing talk, but rather to find teachable moments.
- Teens tend to base their decisions on their perceptions of their peers’ behaviors. Oftentimes, their perceptions are overestimations of reality and social media plays into this.
- It’s never too early and it’s never too late to start the conversation. So for parents with younger kids, answer their questions as they come up. For parents of teens, if you haven’t approached these topics yet don’t feel like it’s too late.
How do you help parents start a healthy conversation with their children?
I have a consulting company called ADOLESSONS, through which I help parents tackle these more complicated and sensitive topics with their kids. How to talk about puberty, changing bodies, sex, and other adolescent issues. These conversations don’t come naturally for everyone and that’s completely understandable. I feel that it’s important for parents to tackle these conversations, and the earlier the better. My goal is to help parents get comfortable with the subject matter so that they can have these incredible, amazing conversations with their kids.
How do ongoing discussions about bodies and sex help kids to have less risky behaviors?
I want to start by saying that this does not come comfortably for all parents. While we were growing up, our parents may not have done a great job of tackling these topics with us so we don’t have that modeling to draw upon. Some adults are not comfortable talking about or even thinking about their own sexuality let alone having these conversations with their kids. Some parents may have a history of sexual assault and that can add a very complicated extra layer to the conversation. For the most part, I find that parents are thoughtful these days and they just want to get it right. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to say the right thing.
Sometimes parents gear up to have “the talk” with their child, and they go about it in such a way that they prepare for one all-encompassing, life-altering, sex talk that’s terribly uncomfortable for everyone involved, and goes on for way too long. This is not a one-and-done conversation. The sex talk is a series of many conversations that cover different little tidbits depending on your child’s developmental stage. The goal for parents shouldn’t be to gear up for one big talk, but to find teachable moments. There are so many great teachable moments if you look for them and listen to what your kids are asking. If the kids are younger and they ask an innocent little question, don’t shy away. It’s okay to stall for a little bit and collect your thoughts, but when your child asks a question about bodies or sex, it’s like they handed you this big beautiful gift with a huge bow on top and now you get to open it up together.
What do parents need to know about developmentally normal curiosity?
If you haven’t had the more basic conversations about sex and bodies, this is hard. That’s another reason to have those more basic conversations first. It is developmentally appropriate for teens to be curious about bodies and to be curious about sex. It’s not easy to do research on kids and pornography exposure for obvious reasons. The average age of first exposure to pornography is now believed to be 11. We’re talking about kids who are in elementary school. It’s very easy to access images online.
A sociologist by the name of Dr. Gail Dines has an interesting organization called Culture Reframed. And according to her, 88% of mainstream, entry-level porn now includes imagery that depicts violence or degrading acts toward women. This is one reason that is important to have these conversations with kids. In addressing pornography with teens, parents need to make a few points. One is, it’s normal to be curious about bodies and sex. It’s also normal for teens to masturbate (and that’s what some of them are using porn for). A lot of teens are using porn as sex ed. They want to understand how sex works. The bodies that they see in pornography are not what real bodies look like. Many of these actors have been surgically or digitally altered. The sex on pornography is not what real sex is like. It’s not what real relationships are like. There is a need for a discussion of the violent nature of the images that they may be seeing.
Why is it important to discuss hookup culture?
This term of hooking up is fairly nebulous. It depends on who you’re talking to. It could be anything from kissing, to oral sex, to vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, what have you. The CDC conducts a nationwide survey of high schoolers every couple of years. It’s called the Youth Risk Behavior Study. The results of the most recent survey showed that 41% of high schoolers had sexual intercourse, which ranged from 24% of ninth graders to 58% of 12th graders. However, the question they actually ask the kids is “have you ever had sexual intercourse?”. There is no explanation of exactly what that is. Our data is only as good as the questions we ask.
There was a report that came out through the Harvard Graduate School of Education which found that both teens and adults tend to overestimate the size of hook-up culture. This is important because teens tend to base their decisions on their perceptions of their peers’ behaviors. Oftentimes, their perceptions are overestimations of reality and social media plays into this.
There are terrifying statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association for younger children. 41% of 1st through 3rd graders state a desire to be thinner. By the time they’re 10, 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat. Our kids are getting strong messages from their environment. There are lots of hyper-sexualized images and photos of unhealthy bodies. It’s not just professionals who are photoshopping, our teens are altering their own pictures. We’re not just talking about taking away a pimple or whitening your teeth. There are apps which allow you to change the contour of your body, change your bone structure, and alter the size of your features. For certain teenagers, this can be distressing because what happens is they start to put out this altered, perfect version of themselves and then the real them doesn’t match up with the image that they’ve put out for the rest of the world.
Some teens are really fearful of their peers seeing unedited photos of themselves. Another aspect to this is there are a lot of websites and social media sites that exist under the guise of health and wellness and fitness but actually are platforms for some unhealthy behavior. If you are a teen with an eating disorder or you’re prone to an eating disorder, then seeing all those photos of extremely thin bodies can become inspirational and can potentially trigger unhealthy behavior. And it’s not just a girls’ issue, this is a boys’ issue as well.
How does lack of sleep affect emotions and learning?
Sleep is important. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens should be getting eight to ten hours of sleep at night and elementary school-age kids should be getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night. They’re not– particularly not the teens. Part of this is because with teenagers, the natural circadian rhythms that influence our sleep-wake cycles shift. The hormone melatonin, that our brains naturally produce at night to help us get sleepy, is produced two hours later on average in teens than it is an adult. When we as adults want to get the whole household to bed and our kids are saying they’re not sleepy, it’s not that they’re trying to be difficult, they’re just not sleepy. Their body is longing to go to bed later and they want to wake up later in the morning, which is not a reality in our society with our early start times for school.
Kids are sleep-deprived and on top of that, we have the effects of devices which are emitting this blue light that further interferes with our brain’s ability to release melatonin. Learning and memory are consolidated during sleep. Important components of brain development, in that adolescent brain that we all talk about, is happening during sleep. Growth Hormone is released during sleep and teens who do not get enough sleep are at higher risk of accidents, behavioral problems, and mood disorders.
What’s one thing that you would tell people when you meet with families one-on-one?
My main message is, it’s never too early and it’s never too late to start these conversations. So for parents with younger kids, pay attention to meet them where they are developmentally. Answer their questions as they come up. For parents of teens, if you haven’t approached these topics yet don’t feel like it’s too late. Look around, pay attention. Ask them about their peers. Spend time connecting with your kids so you can make that connection. You have a lifetime of wisdom and experience to draw upon and your kids want and need to hear about it.