How Well Do You Know Your Teen?

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A tow-headed, 14-year-old boy, no taller than 5 feet, sits on the steps of the bowling alley, smoking a cigarillo.

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As leader of the district, Superintendent Sue Myers is well aware of the challenges facing educators, students and parents when it comes to sex education -- Who teaches? When to teach? What to teach? How to teach? "The belief is the parents are the ones who should be teaching this," Myers said. "Any (other) sex education would have to be approved by the school board."

He wears his baseball cap sideways. Baggy jeans and an oversized T-shirt hang from the boy's growing frame.

"My dad says to always use a condom," he said in a child's voice.

He keeps one in his wallet. So does his 13-year-old friend.

And that parental advice, plus the cursory birds-and-bees film in fifth grade, is the extent of his sex education.

"They don't really talk about it, but they should," said John, a recent Payson High School grad. "Kids are going to do what they are going to do."

Aside from gossip among friends, and the occasional information from non-school sanctioned resources, that's all the sex education local students receive.

As leader of the district, Superintendent Sue Myers is well aware of the challenges facing educators, students and parents when it comes to sex education -- Who teaches? When to teach? What to teach? How to teach?

"The belief is the parents are the ones who should be teaching this," Myers said. "Any (other) sex education would have to be approved by the school board."

Without sex education, teens are figuring it out on their own. Arizona ranks second in the nation for teenage pregnancy.

The Centers for Disease Control also charted nationally higher-than-average chlamydia and gonorrhea rates -- information that coincides with data provided by they Gila County Department of Health.

In 2005, 47 percent of high school students had sexual intercourse; 14 percent of high school students had four or more sex partners during their life; and 34 percent of currently sexually active high school students did not use a condom during last sexual intercourse, according to reports by the CDC.

JeanAnn Schwark, a gynecological nurse practitioner in Payson, sees these trends in her practice every day.

"Teens are taking great risks," Schwark said. "Some parents bring their daughters in. Unfortunately, we have young women who have to hide their prescription (for birth control) in their shoes. Some parents think, ‘If I don't say anything to them then they won't know anything.'"

Schwark said she sees at least two new pregnant teenagers a week in Payson and some are also diagnosed with venereal diseases.

The risks of being sexually active, said Schwark, doesn't stop at intercourse. Oral sex and other types of contact, even skin-to-skin, can spread viruses such as herpes simplex.

"Oral sex is rampant in the middle school and that's per reports from out in the community," said Michele Derouin, who operates the faith-based, pro-life organization, New Beginnings. "As a parent, you can't even imagine that they know about it."

Sandy, whose name is changed to protect her identity, is 15, almost a high school freshman and not a virgin.

She learned about sex from her friends and the pamphlets handed out with the lubrication and condoms at the health department.

"The only thing my mom ever said is ask if I ever need birth control," she said.

Even so, Derouin, who promotes abstinence as the only fully guaranteed form of birth control, is realistic about teenage sexuality, especially the promiscuity associated with low self-esteem and sexual abuse.

"The parents have issues themselves and can't give the love, so (girls) get it from a boyfriend or a child," she said. "Abuse is causing fear and dysfunctional sexual relationships -- sexual promiscuity, and early and inappropriate exploration, having many sexual partners and a distorted sense of a sexual relationship.

"Self-esteem is so fragile and it breaks so easy. (Children) can survive it, but there's broken pieces from that. Unconditional acceptance creates self-esteem."

Derouin said the sexual well-being of girls often eclipses the educational needs of boys.

"We talk to the girls, but what about the boys?" she said. "A lot of them live with single mothers and a mom is not really equipped to understand what's going on in a boy's body. If they don't get the outside help of an uncle or family friend, it's probably not going to get discussed. Even with fathers, it's a hard topic. It's embarrassing."

But the embarrassment and discomfort shouldn't stop a parent from having "the talk" or better yet, an ongoing dialogue.

Abigail Pederson, a prevention specialist for Rim Guidance Center, deals with teenagers daily.

Most contemporary kids, she said, are savvier than their parents imagine, and parents, in turn, must be that much more keen to keep up.

And that includes embracing the Internet -- a place where teenagers in today's society meet, chat and "hook up."

Visit myspace.com.

It's a virtual rec room where people from all over the world swap stories, friendship and pictures -- a place where even local teens share sex chronicles, drug anecdotes, invitations to drinking parties and indecent pictures of themselves.

"Just because you're from a good family doesn't mean you're immune," Pederson said. "Kids want to be recognized. Kids still care about what parents think. The most important thing a parent can do is set and check boundaries."

Parents can't do it alone. Educating teenagers about sex is a community effort.

Myers said she understands the significant role schools play in building this foundation. That's why she's exploring options to improve the school's curriculum and welcomes input from families.

Parents and their children have many other resources in the community, including religious leaders.

Educational materials and support are available at New Beginnings and Rim Guidance Center. Schwark said health practitioners hold a great wealth of information, especially for parents who don't know how to approach the subject.

"Bring girls in before they have sex," Schwark said. "Our door is always open."

How to talk to your teen about sex

Online resources:
www.notmykid.org
www.sexcanwait.com
www.4girls.gov
www.teenwire.com

Local resources:
New Beginnings
(928) 474-7466
Rim Guidance Center
(928) 474-3303
Gila County Department of Health
(928) 474-1210

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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