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Sexual Health & Body Image

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Sexual Health & Body Image

Teens who lack knowledge about sexual health and who do not feel accepted and supported by their parents are more likely to follow the crowd.

They are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and experience unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They are also more likely to use drugs, perform poorly in school, and have low self-esteem. One of the most important things you can do for your children is learn to talk with them about sex.

Teen body image

As puberty begins, preteens and teens become more aware of their body image, often to the point of feeling very self-conscious. At the same time, their sexual identity is developing and they become increasingly concerned about being attractive to others.

To complicate things further, young people develop at different rates, leading to big differences for a few years between peers. Along the way, teens may be self-conscious about acne, their voice changing, their weight, and any number of other changes. And they may be influenced by idealized and unattainable images of appearance and sexuality from TV, movies, magazines, and other popular culture.

Tips for you as a parent to help your teen develop a positive and healthy body image:

  • Model a healthy body image for your children. Your own healthy eating and exercise habits can be a strong influence. Avoid fretting out loud about your own dieting efforts, weight gain, and other aspects of your appearance. Model self-acceptance and positive steps to feel and look your best.
  • Avoid making comparisons between people’s appearance, or between your child’s appearance and others. Demonstrate respectful acceptance of all body shapes and sizes.
  • Keep healthy snacks at home and plan opportunities for exercise, such as sports and family games and outings.
  • Expect good hygiene, but otherwise avoid criticizing your child’s dress and grooming. Experimenting with different fads and looks is part of adolescence.
  • On the other hand, don’t hold back on compliments about your child’s appearance.
  • Give your teen the opportunity to get plenty of sleep.

In some cases, a severely distorted body image can become an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Keep an eye out for behaviors including:

  • Skipping meals or eating tiny portions
  • Developing rules about food or highly ritualized eating habits
  • Rapid or erratic weight loss
  • Wearing extremely oversized clothing
  • Eating secretly, or hiding food
  • Picking at food, or pretending to eat in public
  • Continually talking about being fat
  • Spending time in the bathroom after meals
  • Using diet pills, or illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Coming up with excuses not to eat
  • Excessive or compulsive exercising
  • Becoming withdrawn and socially isolated
  • Binge eating

If you think your child may have an eating disorder, seek help from a healthcare provider.

Getting information

Teens need information about the changes going on in their bodies and about sex. The most frequent questions at teen health sites like TeenHealthFX.com are about physical changes and sexual health; but what if teens are not getting their information from a reputable Web site?

Teens turn to friends, the internet, TV, and movies for knowledge about sex, and much of what they hear is wrong. A recent study found that even teen-oriented health Web sites may have missing information or myths about teen sexual health.

The best way to ensure that teens have the information they need about safe sex, healthy relationships, and your own values is to talk with them. Parents and teens alike can find these conversations awkward, even while they agree that it’s important.

Tips to help make the conversation about sex easier:

  • It’s okay to say that you find the topic difficult to talk about; a sense of humor can go a long way.
  • Use real-life situations to initiate the conversation, such as current events, items in the news, or a movie.
  • Don’t assume that if your teen asks you about sex, it means she’s having sex.
  • Share your own values about sex, and your hopes for your teen’s well-being; accept that your teen may choose a different path than the one you had hoped for him.
  • Reassure your teen that not everyone is having sex. Encourage her to choose her own timetable; talk about ways to handle feeling pressured to have sex.
  • Don’t feel like you have to have all of the answers. There are excellent resources on teen sexual health; choose some age-appropriate, accurate books, articles, or teen health Web sites and have them available in the home.
  • You don’t have to cover everything all at once; once a conversation has been started, it can be easier for your teen to approach you with questions, and it may be easier for you to talk about what’s important to you.
  • Consider opening the topic by asking your teen a question, and then just listening. You might ask, “What are kids at school saying about sex?” or “How do you think teens handle feeling pressured to have sex?”

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