Sexual Precocity

Q. “I’m getting worried about my daughter’s behavior. She’s in seventh grade, and not only is she boy-crazy, but also I’ve overheard her and her friends making comments and inside jokes that seem to have sexual undertones. Is this normal, or should I be concerned?

Although adolescence is typically a time when parents see their kids rapidly changing, mostly in response to the surging hormones of puberty, you are wise to consider the possibility that your daughter’s behavior—and perhaps that of some of her classmates—may be too precocious. Many parents of middle schoolers share this same concern. Some became worried after reading statistics about sexual activities among this age group nationwide, others after hearing rumors about what is allegedly occurring in their own communities.

What young teens are actually doing is hard to determine, but professionals who work with them generally agree that many are becoming overly focused on sexual themes and engaging in acts before they are emotionally mature enough. (Notably, because they are not having intercourse, many teens don’t even consider these acts to be sexual!) A few issues to consider, therefore, are whether your daughter’s sexual interest has become excessive and, if so, what might be contributing to her preoccupation. The choices girls make as young teens strongly affect their sense of self and well-being, now and in the future.

In middle school, there is enormous variation in sexual interests, desires, and behavior. Girls at this age typically become more aware of and intrigued by boys. Some develop crushes, “go out” with each other (connecting mostly via their cell phones or instant messaging), and then move on—sometimes without dating for awhile, other times quickly forming the next intense but short-lived relationship. While this sudden, sometimes frantic, pairing up may alarm parents and raise concerns about adequate supervision, it is certainly within the norm. At the same time, there are also plenty of young teens who keep focusing on sports, hobbies, and schoolwork—even playing childhood games—without the slightest interest in the budding romances that occupy some of their peers. These later bloomers also are well within the realm of normal development. So how can parents know when their kids’ behavior is worrisome?

Unfortunately, many parents are shocked to learn of their daughters’ sexual involvement when their inappropriate behavior comes to light. For example, in some cases the anonymity offered by the Internet tempted middle schoolers to send seductive, even explicit, photos of themselves and each other to their classmates. In other situations, two seventh grade girls recently engaged in sexual acts with boys on the properties of their respective middle schools. At this age, such incidents usually result in crises. The public exposure with peers, school personnel, and parents—not to mention the disciplinary consequences—can feel humiliating and overwhelming to young teens.

Before such crises occur, it is important for parents to be aware of other, more subtle red flags for precocious sexual interest or activity. Be alert for sudden changes in attitude, school performance, or behavior, such as speaking, dressing, or acting provocatively; being ostracized from the usual friendship group; quitting activities; lying or sneaking around; becoming acutely anxious or depressed, and so forth. Teens are generally at higher risk for inappropriate sexuality when they are molested or abused; exposed to excessive or improper sexual material (sometimes even innocently by older siblings or cousins); and desperate for attention or acceptance from the opposite sex.

Ironically, however, premature sexual activity predisposes girls to depression. Best to prevent this occurrence by talking early and frequently to your daughter about the conditions under which you believe sexual activity should and should not take place.

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