If you are a girl or young woman, the idea of boys/other girls and relationships can be exciting, confusing, not yet on the radar, intimidating, baffling, fun… or all of the above.
If you are the parent of a young girl or woman, the idea of her and intimate relationships can be just as much of an emotional mix.
A mother's attitude to her daughter’s body, sexuality and intimacy with others directly affects how her daughter feels about them too. Evelyn Resh, in her thought-provoking, practical book The Secret Lives of Teen Girls: What Your Mother Wouldn’t Talk about but Your Daughter Needs to Know, includes a whole chapter on The Hidden Costs of Just Saying No. She concludes with these words:
As mothers, it falls to us to foster a friendly and positive relationship between our daughter and their bodies, which includes teaching our daughters to listen to their impulses, to satisfy their desires, and to explore what gives them pleasure, so that they can develop the positive body confidence and body friendly perspective that they will need to live long, happy and fulfilling adult lives.
Her book covers a lot of ground. She offers stories of various teen girls and women who have come to her clinic over the last 20 years, where she has worked as a certified nurse-midwife. The Secret Lives of Teen Girls explains how teen brains work, the effect of parenting on body image and eating disorders, the issue of teens and authority, and what a mother can do to help her daughter.
The likelihood that a teen girl will grow into a sexually healthy and satisfied woman increases dramatically when her mum is willing to face the fact that her teen daughter is thinking about sex and able to give her the information and help she needs to explore this part of herself safely and without shame.
She also puts a highlight on the shadow: sexual assault as well as sexually transmitted infections. She points out that over 70% of assailants are known to their victims. Girls and women are most often sexually assaulted by friends, family members, teachers, coaches and people they work with. Many parents don’t discuss sexual assault with their teenagers. And she throws cold water on the idea that the threat of STIs will be an effective deterrent: Pressing the “STI alarm” … will get you absolutely nowhere when it comes to prevention.
Resh goes on to detail the facts about sexually transmitted infections and teens. Not only symptoms, but how common they are, how to prevent them, testing and treatment. Provided not to scare, but to help you feel more informed and as a result more realistic about what could happen.
She makes you have a good hard think about expressions or attitudes you were given during your own adolescence. Consider:
Value: Sex should only be experienced with someone you really love.
Fact: Really loving someone does not necessarily determine someone’s
experience of enjoyment and pleasure.
She also presents the parenting reader with some food for thought through a section called Questions to Ask Yourself at the end of each chapter. They often make you reflect on your own values and how you came develop them. Here are a few examples:
2. Health-seeking behaviours, such as specific diet and exercise practices
5. Compassion for self and others
6. Sense of humour
In discussion about education that covers puberty, adolescence and the emergence of new feelings, I hear adults ask, ‘But isn’t it encouraging girls and boys to start too young if we talk about the pleasures of sex with them?’
Many of us fear that if we discuss our daughters’ emerging sexuality, it will seem as if we are opening the door to reckless behaviour. In my experience as a midwife, sexual promiscuity is not the norm. Girls who are promiscuous are often teens who lack maternal attention, guidance, and support. It’s also frequently indicative of a history of sexual abuse.
To back up this approach, there was recently an article by Matty Silver in the Sydney Morning Herald titled When can teenagers have a partner sleep over? She compares the culture around parents, teens and sex, as well as the statistics, of the United States with the Netherlands. She found that
Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily-acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion.
The main reason for this is that the country has a liberal attitude towards sex, and teen sex education is based on an assumption that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information. Educational materials at schools are characterised by clear, direct and age-appropriate language and attractive designs. The leading message is: If you are going to have sex, do it safely.
The article goes on to call for better sex education in Australian schools. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority had to delay its plans to upgrade sex education after religious and conservative groups raised concerns. They believed talking about puberty and sex was "best done by family".
One of the passages close to the end of The Secret Lives of Teen Girls is a great one to spur you into action:
The development and maturation of a healthy sexual foundation is best fostered during adolescence, when our daughters’ sexuality is emerging and highly sensitive to outside influences, especially those of the parents. A mother’s example and focus while parenting go a long way to building self-esteem and inspiring strong health-seeking behaviours, optimism, creativity, compassion, and humour.
So what happens if the parents are willing enough, but don’t feel equipped to provide a detailed, ongoing conversation about their son’s or daughter’s physical, mental, hormonal and emotional changes?
The best place to start is to get yourself informed. Find some great resources – friends with older kids who have the kind of parent-older child relationship you respect, books, websites, clips. Have a look at our Resources list on the Step into Womanhood website.
Find an educator and/or program that works for you, your daughter and your parenting. A Celebration Day for Girls, Cool on the Inside, Fathers Celebrating Daughters and the Step into Womanhood Mother Daughter Retreat are all great spring boards to help you dive into and find your own style in supporting your young adult in a positive and informed way.
The investment of the time you take will continue to unfold its rewards for a long, long time.
 p. 178, The Secret Lives of Teen Girls, Resh, Evelyn
 p. 86, ibid
 p. 97, ibid
 p. 89, ibid
 First question from Questions to Ask Yourself at the end of Chapters 1, 2 and 3, ibid
 p. 182, ibid
 p. 185, ibid
 When can teenagers have a partner sleep over? Article by Matty Silver in Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 2014
 p. 184-5, The Secret Lives of Teen Girls, Resh, Evelyn
-Janoel Liddy is passionate about girls and women recognizing and acting on their needs to lead a satisfying life. She teaches puberty and wellbeing to girls and boys in schools, facilitates workshops and retreats and works with groups in TAFE, university and community organisations in training and events. She is a mother of two with her partner of over two decades and dances, cooks, reads and writes when she can and must.