Vol. 15, No. 2 • May 2011

Parenting the Hormonally Challenged: Foster and Adopted Teens and Sexuality

by Denise Goodman, PhD

Many parents feel overwhelmed or tentative about the prospect of dealing with their teenager’s emerging sexuality. For many foster, relative, and adoptive parents, this task is complicated by the fact that the youth may have been sexually abused as a younger child. The following provide a good foundation for parenting teens around sexuality issues:

1. Be comfortable with your own sexuality and theirs, too. Too often, adults are paralyzed when it comes to discussing sexuality with teens. Teens are sexual beings and since birth have been growing sexually as well as cognitively, physically, socially, morally, and emotionally. However, the influx of hormones and the onset of puberty put sexual growth in the forefront of the youth’s developmental processes. While there are many “normal” behaviors during this stage, promiscuity, sexual aggression, and gender identity issues may be signals that the youth is dealing with past abuse issues.

2. Build trust: Teens who have been sexually abused often lack basic trust in adults. They may be scared of the dark, the bathroom, the basement, or a medical examination. It is critical that parents be supportive by accompanying the teen to the doctor’s office or by installing night lights (without drawing attention to the teen’s fear). Teenagers need to know that they can count on consistency, honesty and support from their parents to make them feel safe and secure.

3. Set clear boundaries: Sexually abused youth have had their basic physical boundaries violated. Foster, relative, and adoptive parents must work to restore them. Clear boundaries that apply to all family members must be set for dress, privacy, and physical touch:

DRESS: Examples for dress are that every family member must be covered when coming out of the bathroom or bedroom, no coming to breakfast in your underwear, and the youth can’t see company without proper clothing. Encouragement during shopping trips can assist in more appropriate clothing selections.

PRIVACY: Examples for re-establishing a sense of privacy are knocking or warning before entering bedrooms and bathrooms and making rules about when it’s okay to close doors. Another rule of privacy is that no one listens to another’s phone conversations or opens another’s mail.

PHYSICAL TOUCH: Parents must approach physical touch with caution, and caregivers should avoid any contact that could be misconstrued as abuse. The parent should gain the teen’s permission to hug or touch him or her. Rules for touch should generally be that “ok” touches are above the shoulder and below the knee, and the youth should have the power to decline any physical affection or touch.

4. Learn to talk with teens about sex: To assist youth in dealing with their victimization or to support their normal development, use the correct language and not slang names or euphemisms. Parents who avoid conversations about sexuality force teens to learn from unreliable and inaccurate sources such as their peers, siblings, or the media. Parents can think about the five toughest questions they could be asked and prepare answers so that if the opportunity presents itself, they’ll be prepared.

5. Educate the youth: It is important to give teenagers accurate information about sex, sexuality, and human reproduction. This may be difficult for parents who may feel education will lead to sexual intercourse and experimentation. However, teens need information, not taboos. Sexually abused children need to learn about the emotional side of sex, as they have been prematurely exposed to the physical side of sex. Both boys and girls need to learn about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Parents can seek help from community agencies such as Planned Parenthood and Family Planning.

6. Use the “3 C’S” in an emergency: It is not uncommon for a parent to encounter a “sexual situation” that involves their teen. Consequently, all parents must be prepared to handle these incidents as therapeutically as possible.

CALM: Remain calm while confronting the situation, even if it requires getting calm or faking calm. When parents are in control of themselves, they are able to use more effective strategies to handle the situation.

CONFRONT: Confront any unacceptable behaviors. This information should be given specifically and gently without threatening or shaming. Too many times parents say, “Don’t do that” or “Stop it” without being specific. Teens can become confused or ashamed if they are not confronted directly and supportively.

CORRECT: Since a teen’s behavior is purposeful, offer the youth a substitute behavior to use when the need arises. Suggest more acceptable and appropriate alternatives. When the youth uses the alternative behavior, give positive reinforcement.

7. Advocate: Parents must advocate for the needs of their children. Teens who have been sexually victimized may need a variety of services; therefore, the parent should advocate with the social worker, agency, or the mental health center until the services are in place. This may mean that the parent calls every week or even every day and leaves messages. The parent may need to contact managers or administrators to obtain services for their teen. In other words, ask until you get what you need for your child.

Sexuality is a normal part of human growth and development. Every teen, including you and me, struggled to figure out who we were as sexual beings. Today’s teens are bombarded with sexual stimuli in music, on TV, in the movies, and on the radio. Coupled with a past history of sexual abuse, it can be a daunting task for a teen to come to terms with who they are sexually. Be supportive and understanding...and remember, a sense of humor goes a long way.

Denise Goodman, PhD is an adoption consultant and trainer with 25 years experience in child welfare, protective services, and foster parenting. She currently conducts workshops and consultations throughout the U.S. on topics related to foster care and adoption. E-mail: dagphd@aol.com.

New USDHHS Memo on LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care
The federal Children’s Bureau’s new memorandum on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in foster care encourages child welfare agencies, foster and adoptive parents, and others to ensure that all children are protected and supported while they are in foster care. The memo includes information on workforce development; biological, relative legal guardian, foster and adoptive parent training, support and recruitment; and safety of young people in foster care who are LGBTQ. It also highlights resources from the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections and AdoptUsKids. You can find it at: http://tinyurl.com/3grtdlt.