Parenting teens to effectively manage their sexuality is hard work! As a parent, we want our children to live lives that honor God's design for them. We know, sometimes from personal experience, that engaging in sexual activity prior to marriage can be destructive in many ways.
Out of our desire to help children avoid the emotional pain and negative consequences of inappropriate sexual activity, we often expend a great deal of energy making sure they know sex is not something they should focus on or engage in until marriage. We discuss verses like, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor 6:18), or “each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). Parents are not alone in utilizing this approach. Many church youth groups and Christian schools take a similar approach.
Utilizing this approach means we focus on telling teens what they shouldn’t do and why they shouldn’t do it—which isn’t all wrong. However, it arms teens with a standard they are to keep without giving them the tools they need to uphold this standard. The primary tool we give teens is usually some version of “don’t,” which is woefully insufficient to manage the urges they experience. Conversations with parents and participation in church youth group often leaves teens feeling they shouldn’t have sexual feelings and they should avoid situations—sometimes including dating—to ensure they aren’t every in a position where they might succumb to these powerful desires. While this isn’t entirely wrong, it is insufficient, and purity culture leaves teens struggling with intense sexual feelings they can’t find ways to stop and frequently feel guilty for having and/or acting upon.
I Thessalonians 4:4 states individuals are to “learn to control your own body.” Managing sexuality is like managing any other part of the body—it requires learning. Children are not born knowing how to control their hands and feet. Prior to successfully walking, they must practice utilizing the muscles involved and this learning requires them to fall down over and over. Similarly, as the hormones which produce sexual desire begin coursing through a teen’s body, this does not mean they know how to manage these urges. It is important for parents to talk with their teens about this and normalize the fact sexual urges are intense and learning to manage them is going to take practice.
God’s mandate to avoid sexual immorality both protects teens from harm and requires them to learn a set of skills they will need to successfully navigate marriage. If teens don’t learn to manage sexual impulses so they can acknowledge their sexual feelings without needing to act on them, it will create issues for them when they marry. Sex is one of the top three things couples fight about, often because sex drives aren’t matched and one partner feels pressured by the other as a result. Learning to manage sexuality without denying it is present or feeling ashamed of it provides an important set of skills needed within marriage!
God created us as sexual beings. The sexual urges and desires we feel are part of how he created us and, thus, are part of what he declares to be “very good” in Genesis. Sexual desire doesn't somehow become good only after marriage, but is part of how we are made no matter our age or marital status. While impulses are good, what is done with them may or may not be. The trick is learning how to respond to these urges in ways that are healthy—not by avoiding them or by allowing the urges to control choices made. Having conversations with your child prior to and as they enter adolescence about what sexual urges and desires are and the fact they are normal can help your child avoid feeling ashamed when these feelings arise. These conversations don’t have to be long or intense, but they do need to be comfortable and routine. Parents who are comfortable having these sorts of conversations communicate that sexuality is a normal and healthy part of life that can be talked about without shame.
Helping your teen to understand that managing their sexuality is a set of skills they will need to learn—just like they learned the skills to play their favorite sport or a band instrument—moves them from feeling they should simply know what to do into a place of seeing themselves as a learner who is going to need practice.
It can be helpful to discuss age-appropriate examples from your own life around how you developed some of these skills. This should include letting them know you didn’t always do it right. Examples where you made mistakes allows you to explain that practicing requires having enough boundaries in place to be sure their inevitable “falls” are unfortunate, but not negatively life altering. The goal is to create an environment where you and your teen can openly talk about what they are experiencing and strategize together around how to learn the skills they need to manage their sexual desires.
Managing sexual urges begins with managing attraction and moves to managing their physical bodies when in an ever-deepening romantic relationship. Each step along the way requires new skills so don’t assume you can have one conversation and it will be sufficient. It can be helpful to think about this more like learning to drive a car—parents coach from the passenger side as teens learn a series of skills. Each skill builds upon previously learned skills and requires time and consistent practice to skillfully and reliably utilize. Your teen won’t learn to drive a car without a few wide turns and jerky stops and they aren’t going to learn to manage their sexuality without some mistakes along the way. Let them know you anticipate this and your desire isn’t to shame or punish them but, rather, to problem solve with them so they can keep learning.
When parents are able to view managing sexuality as a set of skills they are going to assist their teen to develop, they can more effectively partner with their teen in productive ways that help them “learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (I Thessalonians 4:4).