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Preteen Ministry: Talking About Sex and Sexuality

The new face of sexuality includes talk about homosexuality, transgender issues, and blatant sexuality in the media. Here’s how to help preteens navigate these tough issues today.

There’s ample reason many parents avoid the “birds and bees” conversation with their kids — it’s uncomfortable and even embarrassing. But for today’s preteens, sexuality is front and center in their lives, from media that’s saturated with sex to their personal experiences that raise all kinds of questions. Issues that wouldn’t have made their way into hushed conversation a couple generations ago are now all over the headlines — and cropping up in children’s ministries. Topics such as children dealing with transgender issues, confusion about sexual preference, homosexual parents, and more, are commonplace. So what do you do when one of these beyond-the-birds-and-bees conversations lands in your ministry? How do you handle it when one of your preteens is struggling with a complex sexual issue?

Children’s Ministry Magazine takes on the tough topics to give you expert advice you can use with kids as you walk alongside families dealing with today’s sexuality issues.

The Conversation About Sex

You overhear several kids in your preteen class talking about sex. You’re shocked by their subject matter and their sophistication about it, but even more shocked to hear the latitude by which they’re defining sexual activity. Kids are openly talking about oral sex, who did what with whom, what constitutes real sex, and so on. What do you do?

Advice for the Teacher

Don’t walk away or pretend you don’t hear, advise the experts. Enter the conversation, even if you don’t feel equipped to get into a discussion about sex with preteens. It’s important to let kids know you hear them and understand what they’re talking about.

“Take the group aside,” says Sue Bryan, co-senior children’s pastor for The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino, California, “and graciously discuss things. Remind them of Philippians 4:6-8 about how our conversation should be as Christians. Is it pure? Does it build up others? Then discuss the difference between how a Christian is to feel about sex before marriage versus how the world views these things.”

If This Happens in Your Ministry

“When kids are developmentally ready for this information, they will look for it,” says Kurt Goble, children’s minister at First Christian Church of Huntington Beach, “and they will find it. We have to partner with parents to make sure that the family and the church are viewed as the adolescent’s source for this information. Eight years ago we started a class for fourth- through sixth-graders on Entering Adolescence. Three simultaneous six-week classes transpired: one for boys, one for girls, and one for parents. One main goal was to open the lines of communication between kids and their parents regarding sex.”

The Homosexual Parent

Ted*, 12, and Sarah’s, 10, parents are getting a divorce. Ellen and Nick have been married for 15 years and are a high-profile couple in the community, with Nick serving as the school superintendent. Nick announced during the summer that he was divorcing Ellen because he’d fallen in love with another man and couldn’t “live a lie” any longer. The children are lost — and they’re in your ministry. What do you do?

Advice for the Teacher

“There are many issues these kids face that are greater than homosexuality,” says Goble. “They’re dealing with abandonment, infidelity, financial impact, the destruction of their family unit, and probably questioning God. Love these kids through the process of dealing with these issues first. Obviously, homosexuality is the most prominent hot topic in our minds, but kids who’ve had their family rocked this way have greater immediate needs than explanations and discussions regarding their father’s moral downfall and subsequent lifestyle.”

If This Happens in Your Ministry

Focus on being there for the family, advise the experts. Your ministry should serve as a source of comfort and acceptance; the family doesn’t need a series of lectures on right and wrong. Most of all, don’t say or do things to create division between the children and either parent.

“Comfort them; cry with them,” says Bryan. “Encourage them to love their father and pray for him and be there for their mother during this time. Minister to their mother and strive to expose her to excellent resources.”

Resources include 101 Frequently Asked Questions About Homosexuality by Mike Haley; and When Homosexuality Hits Home: What to Do When a Loved One Says They’re Gay by Joe Dallas.

The Child Navigating Sexual Orientation

Terry, 12, has always hung back from boy’s activities and typical “boy” behavior, but this year when school started, you notice that he seems particularly withdrawn from the other kids. You see Terry once per week, and he’s a regular fixture in your ministry class. The other kids used to tease him, but now it seems that rather than picking on him they avoid him almost totally. What do you do?

Advice for the Teacher

It’s time for a frank, private discussion — but bring your leader and the child’s parents into it. Start with the child’s immediate and most important needs, say the experts.

Ask Terry if he feels unsafe in the classroom or church because of the way other kids are reacting to him,” advises Sharon Lamb, psychologist and co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes. “If he feels unsafe, ask what you could do to help him feel safer. Ask how he copes with the teasing and tell him you want him to come to you if he feels other kids are making fun of him or treating him badly. In the classroom pair up kids in listening pairs to work on important issues, such as What’s My Vision of God or What’s Jesus’ View on Bullying? Pair this boy with the most sympathetic, open girl in your class. Once one child treats Terry as okay, the others will treat him better.”

If This Happens in Your Ministry

Pray about who to approach and when, says Bryan. Then, “approach key peer leaders and encourage them to make Terry feel welcome by including him in their circles.”

Also, says Bryan, you must “approach Terry’s parents, first casually, then depending on the relationship, ask key questions as to what his interests are, how he’s doing at school, and so on. If the parents open up or are obviously concerned, direct them to local counseling resources.” One resource that helps parents focus on loving their child is Always My Child by Kevin Jennings and Pat Shapiro.

Above all, offer hope to the parents and acceptance to Terry. Remind them that God’s love never fails, and he has answers to all our life’s issues. Commit to walking beside this family as a support and prayer partner, and let them know you will be with them throughout the journey ahead.

The Child With Gender Identity Issues

Since early childhood, Charles (now 10) insisted on playing with girls’ toys and wanted to dress like a girl. He told his parents he was a girl and wanted to be called Macy. Over the years, Charles never altered from this sentiment. After much thought, medical advice, and counseling, the parents elected to start Charles on hormone therapy at age 8 that would change his physical development so he wouldn’t develop normally as a boy, and so he could be prepared for transgender operations later in life. Charles now lives as Macy. Macy and her family attend your church, and Macy is in your children’s ministry. What do you do?

Advice for the Teacher

“It’s a new world for those of us in children’s, youth, and family ministry,” says Dr. Jim Burns, author of The Purity Code: God’s Plan for Sex and Your Body. “We need to learn the critical issues of our culture and then realize issues like this one can’t typically be handled by a church worker with little expertise. We can help families greatly by finding the right referrals in the areas of family crisis.”

You need to have frank conversations with the child’s parents about practical issues, such as whether the child wants to be referred to as male or female, whether the situation is a public or private matter, what restroom accommodations you need to make (this can have legal implications, so check your state laws), and how you’ll handle special events such as sleepover camp.

Above all, “show the child absolute unconditional love,” urges Burns. “Our job in children’s ministry is to come alongside the kids and parents for spiritual insight and friendship and discipleship. The very best thing we can do is not try to argue or debate the issue but rather with the help of other leadership in the church find the most reputable clinical counsel and bring it to the parents. The Bible is clear, ‘Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers’ (Proverbs 11:14).”

If This Happens in Your Ministry

Your ministry can’t shy away from tough topics because ultimately you’ll leave kids who are struggling in the void — typically left to suffer alone without a trustworthy, healthy outlet for their emotions and questions. At the same time, it’s important to recognize when a subject is beyond your expertise and you must refer families to professionals.

“Today’s society is very different than even a generation ago,” says Burns. “We have to understand the issues and changes in our culture. It’s important to understand that today, at least 10 percent of kids will struggle with gender identity issues by the time they graduate from high school — usually more in the early or later teen years and after puberty. The church and parents have to deal with these issues in a practical, educational, and loving manner.

“Unfortunately, many young people feel alone with their thoughts and problems and don’t feel safe talking with someone about this very important issue,” says Burns. “Kids learn best when they talk — not just parents or children’s workers lecturing at them. Let kids talk about the subject. Let them learn what the Bible says through investigation. Allow them to learn to think critically on this issue. Because of our ‘new tolerant’ society, the discussions that were happening in church for 16-year-olds now need to be discussed in 5th and 6th grades.”

The Language of Sexuality

Bryce, 12, casually mentions in conversation with you that she’s “bi” (as in bisexual). As you dig into her comment, she reveals that kids her age don’t say they’re straight because that indicates a closed mind. So it’s more hip and relevant for kids to say they’re bi so people assume they have an open mind.

Advice for the Teacher

It’s time for a heart-to-heart, say the experts, because often preteens use language they don’t fully grasp and they place more importance on fitting in rather than standing up for what they think is right. Begin by making sure Bryce fully understands the words she’s using.

“Listen to what Bryce is really saying,” advises Dr. Freda McKissic Bush, co-author of Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children. “Is this just a philosophy or a reality? I’d like to know if there’s been any sexual activity — straight or bi? Who are her peers or circle of influence? Remind Bryce of the basic principles of a relationship with Jesus — we should be more concerned about what Jesus  thinks about us than what people think.”

If This Happens in Your Ministry

“Our thoughts determine our choices, and our choices determine our actions,” says McKissic Bush. “These actions mold our brains and emotions. Imprints are made in our brains that may take years of counseling to undo. Studies show that parents have more influence on kids than peers. Sadly, too many parents aren’t using their influence to guide and support their young people to make the healthiest behavior choices.”

Make your ministry a source for positive, healthy conversation and information, say McKissic Bush and Burns. Above all, design your programs and conversations so parents walk away equipped — and feeling equipped — to talk to their children.

“Parents admit they don’t have the skills (or courage) to have the conversations, so the job of the church is to come alongside parents and build them up to have continual dialogue with their kids about healthy sexuality from a biblical viewpoint,” says Burns. “Authorities agree that the best sex education comes from home. The more positive, value-centered sex education kids get at home, the less promiscuous and confused they are about their sexuality.”

Looking for more preteen ideas? Check out these posts!

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