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Talking to My Teens About Life, Sex and HIV

By Lynda Arnold

September 23, 2013

I have three teenagers, 18, 16 and 14. If I could, I would probably want to lock them away in some high tower and let them out after their teen and young adult years passed by so that I could enjoy them fully again and I could know that the risks in their lives could be minimized once again. Did you know that the average brain is not even fully developed until the age of 25? Yet teens every day face enormous challenges in decision making coupled with peer pressure and insecurity and many times can't even pull from the recesses of their brains to help them make healthy, and positive choices. When my friends and I say that we are raising our teens as a collaborative process, we mean it. We are living by the slogan, "It takes a village to raise a child." In our case it may be a virtual village, but it's a village alright and one I'm not sure I could live without.

I set out to ask my teens and their friends what it is that they felt were the topics of discussion they and their parents or guardians had repeatedly discussed over the years. I wanted to know which topics they wrestled with had really stuck in their heads as getting help and guidance from the people whom they looked up to the most. I let them tell me their thoughts and I didn't share any of mine.

High on the list was "Stranger Danger" -- the knowledge to stay away from strangers to avoid being kidnapped or taken hostage. Two of the girls questioned brought this fear and discussion forward. They both felt like it had been placed in their heads from a very early age and that practice scenarios were even conducted complete with strong role play and dialogue.

Next highest on the list was the use of drugs and alcohol and the effect of peer pressure. Three of the boys really felt like the parents had continued to talk about that issue over and over, especially when it came to attending parties or events or sleepovers.

Teenage pregnancy was also a big issue but it seemed as if the parents or guardians of the girls especially focused heavily on the abstinence side and did not truly discuss other choices or discuss safer sex practices.

Finally the last items of concern focused on worries about the future -- college processes, what happens to me when I turn 18?, how do I start my life at age 18? Discussions of that nature seemed to be commonplace among the older teens and their loved ones. There was a genuine area of concern among the older teens with topics such as these as they appeared more apprehensive about the future and where they fit in.

Being a teenager today is something that really comes with a lot of baggage. I can look back on my teen years, as can my husband or my friends, and sure we had some issues to worry about but nothing like they have today. Before we even begin to discuss HIV/AIDS and safer sex scenarios and/or abstinence, I think we have to be able to discuss things such as drugs/alcohol, peer pressure/bullying, body image/disorders, sexuality, mental health/suicide/cutting, violence/racism/racial profiling/school shootings/gun control, respect for self/respect for women/porn, sexual responsibility/STDs/pregnancy and drinking/texting/doping while driving. This is just a small list of things we came up with as conversation starters.

The key is that we need to keep the lines of communication open with our kids and recognize the fact that through the internet and all its glory they are getting information so much faster than we will ever be able to give them. We must assume that they know, but the question is: then what do they know, or what do they think they know? It's our job to clarify, answer their questions and listen to them and give them the right information so that they can make good informed choices. And it doesn't have to be the parent or the guardian ... with the concept of a village raising a child it can be the aunt or the uncle or mom's best friend. It can be a Facebook friend who intervenes because he saw Johnny smoking dope on his Instagram page and tells Mom because he wants what's best for Johnny and now Mom knows she has to have a talk with Johnny and figure some stuff out ...

When we decide to have the talks on HIV and safer sex we need to be open and honest and tell it like it is. Hiding behind abstinence is not gonna help keep my kids safe or keep my friends' kids safe. Scaring them to death isn't gonna work either. They need the tools -- they need education, honesty and they need to know the facts.

One of the boys told me that when you have a family member with HIV you think about it all the time because you see them take their medicine and you overhear conversations and so it's just there and you need to know that you're not gonna get it. I asked him if he knew though how not to get it and he said "No -- not really. I guess I hope I won't have sex and if I do that my condom won't break." They need so much more information than this. They surely aren't getting it at school! They need to get it at home.

We need to talk about condom usage. We need to talk about dental dams and female condoms. We need to talk about preventative pills if you have a risk exposure. We need to talk about anonymous testing for sexual partners. We need to talk to them -- really talk to them -- so that in a few years when they are ALL 18, Stranger Danger won't be at the top of the list alone. It will have a buddy. It will be Stranger Danger AND HIV Prevention!

Then I'll know that our little village succeeded in this new task!

Until next time ...

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See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More Viewpoints on HIV Prevention for Young People

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Get Outta My Head, You Crazy Virus!

Lynda Arnold

Lynda Arnold

Lynda Arnold, RN, BSN, MBA, was one of the first health care workers to go public after her occupational infection with HIV by an accidental needlestick in 1992. She successfully launched a nationwide campaign for safer needles in hospitals and medical facilities which resulted in the passage of federal legislation mandating the use of such devices in facilities nationwide to protect all health care workers from accidents such as hers. For many years she was a sought-after speaker on living with HIV/AIDS as well as health care worker safety issues, and she traveled the globe educating others. She garnered many awards, national distinctions, authored two children's books, and was the subject of an award-winning documentary. After the birth of her youngest son, Lynda chose to step away from the public eye and focus on raising her young family without the spotlight. As a blogger for, this marks her reentry into the public eye -- 20 years after her infection. She can be reached for further engagements, commentary and questions through her email.

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