Most parents agree that today’s teenagers are bombarded with sexual influences and images. The media and the entertainment industry portray a variety of relationships, including many that are downright risky for teenagers who haven’t finished growing up. Many teenagers who have learning or attention difficulties are at even greater risk to be taken in by such attractions. For example, preliminary studies that have followed teenagers with ADHD into young adulthood have found a higher rate of sexual activity at a younger age and with more sexual partners. The young adults with ADHD studied reported that, throughout their teen years and into young adulthood, they were less likely to use contraception and more likely to have conceived a teenage pregnancy. In a study by Dr. Russell Barkley and colleagues in Milwaukee, nearly 40% of the teens with ADHD studied were involved in an unwed pregnancy. They were also more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease (not HIV).
What do parents need to know about these risks? And what steps can they take to keep their teenagers safe while still allowing them a healthy degree of independence and experimentation? Ann Christen, MFCT, who has 20 years of clinical experience counseling adolescents (many with learning challenges) and their families, offers the following advice and information.
What is normal in teenage development?
It’s a normal part of a teenager’s development to be preoccupied with sex and romance. Boys tend to focus more on sex, while girls fantasize about dating and romance. Ann Christen urges parents to, “Think back to how preoccupied with sex and/or romance you were as a teenager. Accept the fact your teenager is probably experiencing those same feelings.” That acceptance may be hard to come by, she acknowledges, since many parents feel ambivalent about their teenagers’ budding sexuality and may react by denying that it’s happening or by attempting to shut it down; neither of those responses, she cautions, is helpful to your child.
She goes on to point out that, “In addition to developing sexually, it’s normal and healthy for your teen to ‘individuate’ (separate) from you. His peers will have greater influence over him than you do. But keep in mind that your role is to support and educate your teenager by being a ‘loving enforcer’ rather than his best friend. Despite what he may tell you, your teenager needs — and wants — to know what his boundaries are.”
How can parents protect their teenagers?
Ann Christen advises parents to employ a number of management strategies to prepare and protect their kids during the critical teenage years. She recommends the following:
- Help your teen find safe, healthy ways to experiment with being independent. Decide which battles are worth fighting (e.g., drinking and driving) and which battles you can safely afford to lose (e.g., your daughter wanting to dye her hair green!).
- Be sure you know who your teen is hanging out with, where they are, and what they’re doing. For example, be aware of the temptation teenage boys might have to surf the Internet for porn sites. (In this case, installing an Internet filter on your home computer would serve as a safeguard.)
- Get to know your teenager’s friends (and their families). Open your home to your child’s friends and encourage them to spend time there, preferably when you are at home.
- If your teenager’s behavior requires it, set and enforce curfews.
- Encourage your teenager to participate in group activities that include both boys and girls. This will help him develop friendships with both genders without the sexual pressures that arise when a boy and girl are alone together.
- If you allow your teenager to attend un-chaperoned parties, be open and honest with him about the risks those situations present.
- When it comes to protecting your teenager from pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease, your best defense is a good offense! Do your best to educate your teenage son or daughter about the risks and realities they face. Offer both information and support. That said, keep in mind that even a well-informed teenager with good intentions may slip up, in which case your support and understanding will be critical.
Tune in to your teen’s learning style and behavior
By his teenage years, your child has probably received a fair amount of sex education (both formal and informal). Even so, Ann Christen recommends you remain vigilant about reviewing key points with him as necessary. As you discuss the facts of life with your teen, consider his individual needs and help him become more self-aware. For example:
- Be realistic about your teenager’s emotional maturity level. Some teens with LD or ADHD look and feel mature physically, but they act “young” for their age and lack the social judgment of their peers. Not only does this create conflict within themselves, but their physical appearance may also lead others to expect them to be more mature than they really are.
- A teen with ADHD may act impulsively, without considering or planning for consequences. An example would be engaging in spontaneous and unprotected sex. Help your teen understand how his impulsive nature might pose a risk in certain situations.
- When introducing or reviewing concepts, keep your teen’s preferred learning style in mind. If she grasps ideas better when they’re presented visually (e.g., in diagrams) or introduced in segments over a period of time, tailor your discussions accordingly.
Sexual exploitation: cause for concern
Ann Christen cautions parents that teens with LD and/or ADHD are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “If a teen has low self-esteem because he feels like an academic and social failure, he’s at risk to be taken advantage of,” she explains.” Many teens with learning difficulties lack the social competence to recognize individuals they shouldn’t trust; an ‘exploiter’ might be an older teen or adult (of either gender) and can be a stranger or a trusted adult, such as an uncle, youth group leader, or coach. It might also be a bully-turned-friend.” Ann says parents must be aware that true sexual predators also exist, such as those who use the Internet to lure unsuspecting teenagers. While these criminals make the national headlines, they are fewer in number than it may appear.
Ann advises parents to be proactive by warning their teens that not everyone will have their best interests in mind. Describe the warning signs and behaviors to be aware of, but do so in a matter-of-fact and non-alarming manner. This will raise your teenager’s awareness and open the door for him to talk to you about suspicious individuals he encounters. You can further help your teenager by helping him develop good self-esteem and the social skills to “size up” and respond to others.
Keep the light on and the door open
Finally, Ann Christen emphasizes, it’s important to be accessible to — and accepting of — your teenager at all times. If you lecture and react to him with shock and judgment, he will likely “shut down “on you. You can deepen your trust by telling him stories of feelings and experiences you had as a teenager. Take comfort in knowing that the values you’ve instilled in your child throughout his lifetime remain secure, even though baffling teenage behavior may cause you to believe otherwise! While he may not show it, your teenager still looks to you for life’s important lessons.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (2nd Edition). New York, NY: Guilford. (1998) by R.A. Barkley