First came the ABCs, now it’s time to learn about STDs. Talking about sex — including birth control, sexual feelings, sex and media and how to say “no” — with your teen is one of those awkward yet essential tasks we must embrace.
The reason? Sex, and everything that comes with it, is an important health and safety issue. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Here are some stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:
- About one in seven teens have sex before they are 15 years old, and approximately six in 10 have had sex by the time they graduate from high school.
- 47.4 percent of teens are sexually active. Of these teens, 39.8 percent did not use a condom the last time they had sex, and 76.7 percent did not use birth control pills or Depo-Provera to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex.
- Three in 10 girls in the U.S. get pregnant at least once by age 20.
- An estimated 8,300 young people ages 13–24 years old (in the 40 states reporting to the CDC) had an HIV infection in 2009.
- Nearly half of the 19 million new STDs each year are among young people ages 15–24 years old.
How can we help mitigate those numbers? Given teens’ media-rich, peer-driven lives, it’s tempting to view parents as practically powerless.
In fact, the opposite is true: “Teens consistently tell us that parents most influence their decisions about sex; more than peers, partners or popular culture,” says Bill Albert, chief program officer at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, D.C.
Starting the conversation
Experts agree that talking about sex with your kids isn’t a one-time exchange. “It’s an 18-year conversation,” says Albert. “Parents should start early and stay late.”
Beginning early arms your kids with age-appropriate and factual information. This is an opportunity to infuse them with the values you’d like your children to embrace — and to create a foundation for future discussions about more complex topics.
Jessica Gottlieb, a Los Angeles-based blogger and mother of two, began talking about sex with her kids when, as kindergartners, they’d ask, “How did the baby get in the mommy’s tummy?” Those talks evolved into dialogues about STDs when Gottlieb’s best friend died of AIDS a few years ago.
Now that her kids are 11 and 14, the conversations focus on emotions.
“We’ve talked about how sex is tied to love for most people, but that for others, it’s like a sport,” says Gottlieb. “We’ve explained that sex can be special, but it can be problematic for them if they’re too young.”
Still, many parents encounter verbal speed bumps when it comes to talking about this topic with teens. Parenting and sex educator Amy Lang of Seattle-based Birds and Bees and Kids advises parents to keep things casual. She suggests choosing a time when you’re doing something else — cooking or driving to the soccer game — and raising those challenging issues then.
“Say, ‘Hey, we haven’t talked about X in a while,’” advises Lang. “They’ll respond with ‘Ugh’ or ‘I know’ and roll their eyes at you. Then you can say, ‘I get it; you’re uncomfortable. But it’s my job to make sure you are healthy and safe. ’”
Don’t be afraid of making your kids squirm a bit, says Lang.
“Sex is such a fundamental part of being human. It doesn’t make sense to not talk about it.” Parents need to understand that teens are scared and confused about how to navigate dating and relationships. “Adolescents want to know: Is this normal? Is that OK?”
Laura Sechier of Federal Way started these kinds of conversations with her son, now 15, and daughter, 24, beginning in the fifth grade. “There were girls kissing boys on the playground, and I thought, this is a good opportunity to talk to my daughter about how you get a ‘reputation.’ Later, when my daughter was 17 and had her first boyfriend, we had some great talks about the emotional impact of having sex.”
Sexting, porn and other hazards
Today’s parents have the usual worries: drinking, drugs, unsafe driving and unsafe sex. Add to that easy access to pornography, cyberstalking and shocking sexual smartphone shots.
“Teens have seen their friends make mistakes,” says Jo Langford, a Seattle-based therapist and author of The Sex EDcylopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Sexuality for the Modern Male Teen. Discussing those mistakes with your son or daughter can be a valuable way to begin a conversation, says Langford.
While teen mischief is nothing new, social media shifts things into high gear and opens up new vulnerabilities for otherwise good kids.
“The average age at which kids today are first exposed to porn is 10 and a half,” Langford says. “The first exposure is often accidental, but then social media makes it viral.” Teach kids early about positive ways to surf the Web and network with friends. “The technology is here, and kids need to learn how to make good choices. Parents should develop a list of guidelines with their teens about what’s OK and what isn’t,” he says.
Parents should also limit (and regulate) their teens’ popular media choices. “My daughter watches Glee, and I watch with her,” says Gottlieb. “There are a lot of really abusive relationships being modeled on screens large and small, so we talk about what a healthy relationship looks like.”
Make questions on sensitive topics open-ended and not personal, says Langford. “You can ask, ‘Hey, what’s your take on this sexting thing?’ It makes the exchange less awkward when you are talking about a third party.”
Keep the conversation going, he says. “Sleep safe in the knowledge that even if your kids might be uncomfortable talking to you about this, they know they can.”
Allison Ellis is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at AllisonEllis.