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Sexuality and Adolescents: A Handout for Parents

by Richard B. Staples, CAGS

Peabody, MA


Adolescence is a time of transition between childhood and adulthood. “Transition” reflects movement, development or evolution from one form, stage or style to another. It is important to view adolescence as a process of incremental changes. It is generally accepted that the beginning of adolescence is marked by the development of secondary sex characteristics, i.e., body hair for boys and girls as well as ejaculation for boys and menstruation for girls.

Boys and girls develop at different ages and different rates. Girls generally precede boys by approximately two years. Girls can begin to show signs of development as early as age nine, where boys usually begin to show signs of development at age eleven. It is common to see physical changes in both sexes by fifth grade. There are also emotional, social and “attitudinal” changes that occur simultaneously but may not be as visible. When recalling their first conscious sexual thoughts, most students report these occurred at about age nine years. While middle childhood might be termed the “latency period,” when psycho-dynamic theorists claim sexuality is suppressed, this period is characterized by physiological and cognitive changes that children may not discuss unless an adult “sets the tone” for a non-judgmental and sensitive discussion.

Sexual development is a major part of adolescence. Sexuality flows from the onset of physical changes. It is an inevitable, universal occurrence. The typical changes in adolescence for girls and boys include body growth, the development of body hair, and increased output of oil/sweat producing glands. Specifically, for girls, the changes include menarche and breast development. Specifically, for boys, there is growth in the testicles, the scrotal sac and the penis; ejaculation also occurs around this time. Ejaculation may occur in the form a nocturnal emission or “wet dream” or the boy may ejaculate by masturbating.

Developmental Issues

As boys and girls progress through the changes of adolescence, they are acutely aware of their peer group. Adolescents are consistently evaluating themselves and comparing themselves to their classmates. There is intense pressure to conform to the group norms that are present in their culture and adolescents can be extremely impatient with peers who stray from what is considered “normal” development. The concept of body image becomes very important to both boys and girls. For purposes of clarity, body image is defined as how a person feels their body communicates their character or “What does my body say about who I am?” and the individual’s degree of satisfaction with this communication. There is a tendency in our society for people’s level of competence to be based on their appearance. Adolescent culture is no different and adolescents can be very judgmental. Impressions can become reality with adolescents because they are hypersensitive to social approval.

Body type becomes a focus of attention in adolescence. Girls begin to become weight-conscious and can be greatly influenced by the media as to what is “socially acceptable.” Boys tend to become fascinated with muscle development, weight lifting, athletic prowess and physical power that can be translated into some sort of status in their peer group.

Early maturing adolescents: Early maturing girls tend to have difficulty within their peer group. They are often the focus of unwanted attention from boys and can become self-conscious of their body development. Early maturing boys are often quite popular because they are “ahead” of their male peers, are usually more socially sophisticated and gain popularity in sports.

Late maturing adolescents: Boys generally struggle when they are slower to reach puberty. They typically do not enjoy the recognition from their early maturing age-mates and are clearly at a disadvantage in most sports. Their small stature creates a situation where they are treated as if younger. Girls who are late in maturing can be at an advantage because they are maturing at the same time as their male peers, and this can lead to the development of common interests. Comparisons with their female peers, however, can cause feelings of rejection and lowered self-esteem if the delay of puberty is significant.

Self-esteem: There are some differences in how boys and girls acquire self-esteem. Boys tend to acquire self-esteem by being viewed as capable and proficient in some sort of activity. Girls tend to acquire self-esteem by being viewed as popular and well-liked by other people. Self-esteem is really how someone feels about the unique talents and strengths that make them who they are. Generally, boys value physical activities and judge themselves by their physical skills. Simultaneously, the girls are influenced by the images portrayed in the media about the female body and are judging themselves by this standard. The development of high or low self-esteem depends on the degree to which the boy or girl feels he or she measures up to these standards.

Developing sexual behavior:Just as the development of self-esteem is different for boys and girls, the development of sexual behavior is different as well. Generally, girls tend to focus on romantic fantasies and the expression of emotions as a way to become close to their male peers. Boys tend to focus on sexual activity and in some instances define the depth of a relationship by the extent of the sexual behavior in the relationship. Masturbation is common to both boys and girls. Most adolescents do not consider engaging in sexual behavior as “right or wrong.” Rather, they make a decision based on the quality of the relationship of the partners. Sexually experienced male adolescents tend to have relatively high self-esteem, whereas sexually experienced females tend to have low self-esteem. However, for both sexes, early sexual activity can be associated with other problem behavior, such as drug use and delinquency.

Because adolescents are very impressionable, it is imperative that their access to pornographic materials be monitored. It is also important that parents remember that they are role models for their children and create an atmosphere where sexuality is viewed as healthy and nurturing.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Questioning Teens

Contrary to what some people would like to believe, adolescents do not become gay when they become freshman in college and move away from home. In their work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth, many professionals have found that most adolescents become aware of their feelings in middle school. Some can reflect on feelings they had earlier but at that time they were unaware of what those feelings were all about. This is a subject that is almost never discussed within the family or classroom. It is a subject that parents need to “put on the table” so that your adolescent knows it is open for discussion. This is a time that your own feelings regarding sexuality need to be very clear. Your nonverbal communication will be more powerful than your verbal communication and your attitude can open or forever close the subject with your adolescent. Adolescents can suffer quietly because sexual orientation is tied to self-esteem. Being anything other than heterosexual is being “different” and, as stated previously, adolescents have a very difficult time being different.?

Suggestions for Parents

As a parent, you must recognize that adolescents’ sexuality embraces much more than the physical acts of sex and the development of their bodies. It also includes how their bodies respond sexually and how they feel about those responses. It includes what they think is right and wrong related to sexuality. Decision making and moral development are clearly intertwined at this juncture. Adolescents’ role models are critical and it is important that the adolescents have someone to “talk things over with.” There will be a lot of confusing questions because sexuality is generally a subject that produces a certain amount of anxiety when initially discussed. The following guidelines are adapted from Gale’s A Parent’s Guide to Teenage Sexuality:

  • Be a knowledgeable resource. First, make sure that you are knowledgeable yourself. There are several good publications that are clear and easily read. You can find them at most book stores or public libraries. You do not have to be the “expert” and be able to answer all of the questions. It is far more important that you are empathic, understanding, supportive and non-judgmental. This will “keep the door open” and give your adolescent permission to come back for repeated discussions. To borrow from the work of Steven Covey in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind.” Consider what message you want your adolescents to gain from the discussion.
  • Eliminate distractions. Turn off the T.V., radio, turn on the answering machine and spend the time alone with your adolescent. Nothing should come between you and your adolescent.
  • Clarify an unclear question. Summarize what you think your adolescent wants to know. It will help them to understand that you are really listening and give them the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.
  • Don’t interrupt. This is important because if your adolescent is anxious, his or her questions may be disjointed or generated slowly. Give them time to formulate their thoughts and communicate those thoughts. Don’t “jump the gun” and finish their question for them.
  • Use I statements. This is one of the best ways to communicate in a non-accusatory fashion., i.e., “I feel _____ when you” or “I’m concerned about you because … “.
  • Arrange time to talk. Honesty, sincerity and morality should guide your discussions with your adolescents. “The facts” are important but do not forget that your adolescents will have some feelings about those facts. Do not underestimate the moral issues either. Your adolescents are actively thinking about how old you should be when you “do it for the first time,” “What do you do on a first date,” “How do you know when your relationship is ready to go further.” Sexual decision making is part of sexuality and is often eliminated in sex education classes because, by some standards, a public school health class is not the place to communicate morality and values. You as the parent are in the optimal position to do that. Your adolescents really do want to talk with you.
  • Address “safe sex.”Although you may strongly emphasize abstinence with your teenager for both moral and health reasons, you can’t really control their behavior to the degree you might wish. If you have established an open, nonjudgmental communication system with your adolescent, you will be available to answer questions and provide guidance. Above all, emphasize the importance of safe and responsible behavior, to prevent pregnancy and to prevent sexually transmitted disease.


Bell, R., et al. (1988). Changing bodies, changing lives. New York: Random House.

Gale, J. (1989). A parent’s guide to teenage sexuality. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Madaras, L. (1988). The what’s happening to my body book for boys, New Edition. New York: New Market Press.

Madaras, L. (1988). The what’s happening to my body book for girls, New Edition. New York: New Market Press.

Marsh, C. (1994). Sex stuff for kids 7-17. Atlanta: Gallopade Publishing Group.



? 1998 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda MD 20814 phone 301-657-0270.

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