I remember it like it was yesterday. My first kiss. I was fourteen, he was fifteen, and we were in the back of someone's car. He pressed his lips to mine, and before I knew what was happening his slug-like tongue was wriggling its way into my mouth.
Back then it was known as 'getting with' someone. These days, it's known as 'hooking up'. And my older two kids are at the hook up age. Already, some of my thirteen year old daughter's classmates are having their first proper kisses.
So what is normal when it comes to 'hooking up'? I talked to Dani Klein, Clinicial Psychologist specialising in adolescents.
When does hooking up generally begin? In co-ed schools, Year 7 is the classic time when the more adventurous kids begin experimenting. In single sex schools it can be a little later, usually simply because of lack of access to the opposite sex. Generally kids at this early age want to kiss just to see what it feels like; there are rarely emotions involved, and the kids are usually not in romantic relationships.
Is it safe for young people to be 'hooking up'? There is nothing wrong with dabbling in open mouthed kissing at the age of twelve or thirteen if the kid feels ready and is not coerced. However, says Dani, we shouldn't underestimate that this can still be a very big deal for the teen, as it is the first time they have been physically intimate with another person.
Are all the kids doing it? No, definitely not; it is generally the edgier, more daring kids who begin kissing at this early age. However, because they tend to be more outspoken and others are titillated by their experiences, the word can spread in their social group, and it can seem like 'everyone is doing it'. In fact, invariably, it is just the very vocal minority engaging in these practices.
What if a kid isn't ready yet? At the age of twelve or thirteen, there is a tremendous disparity in emotional maturity between different kids. A twelve-year-old can be emotionally like a ten-year-old or like a sixteen-year-old, and their interest in sexual experimentation will accordingly. For the kids who are slower to mature, this period can be very challenging. Those who are suddenly interested in exploring sexuality are more likely to gravitate together, which can create social friction with those who are not.
How do we support kids who are slower to mature? Kids who aren't ready for sexual experimentation can feel angry at friends who are, and dislocated from their social groups. Dani recommends that these kids be reassured that it is normal for people to change at different times, and that no-one is doing anything wrong. They also need reminding that they are not the only ones who aren't ready to hook up, that there are many who are also not ready but are not talking about it. 'Everybody is doing it' is never actually true.
What if your child is 'hooking up'? It is normal for parents to be a little freaked out when their kids begin sexual experimentation, particularly if their child is a daughter. But it is vital to remember that kids should never be shamed for sexual curiosity; that it is a normal and healthy part of development.
When is it too early to actually have sex? Dani says that is difficult to put an age on psychologically safe sex, but she believes that sex before sixteen or seventeen is too early for most kids. They are simply not yet ready at that age to deal with what might happen emotionally as a result of something so physically intimate.