Talking to Your Teen About Sex

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Talking to teens about sex can be difficult. Maybe you aren’t sure what to say, are afraid of what you might hear, or just find the topic embarrassing. You may try to avoid the subject, hoping they’ve already learned what they need to know.

But in reality, your teen really needs to hear from you. While you might think that what you say doesn’t matter, research shows the opposite. Teens report that they really do want to hear from their parents about sex and relationships. (And both parents should take part-- in particular, girls want their fathers to communicate with them about these topics.)

Teens also tell us that they value parents’ opinions on this subject more than friends’ opinions, info from the media, school teachings, and so on. What’s more, teens whose parents make the effort to talk openly with them about sex and relationships are more likely to make good choices in this area. They say this guidance makes it easier for them to make responsible decisions.

Talking to Teens about Pregnancy

A big concern for most parents is pregnancy. You might be surprised to learn that teen pregnancy is and has been on the decline (although pregnancy outside of marriage has increased among women in their 20s and older). This is good news. However, many teens still do get pregnant, and there are consequences. In general, teen girls who become mothers are less likely to finish school and more likely to live in poverty as adults. Their children face an increased chance of problems, like more behavioral issues and more trouble in school.

So, how should you talk to your teen about pregnancy? Share your values and beliefs on the subject, but do so calmly and accurately. Let them know that abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy, but also share accurate information on what contraception is and how it works. (If you are concerned that giving teens information about birth control could encourage teen sex, know that research has not shown this to be the case.)

When talking about birth control, make sure they know that contraception must be used correctly and every time to prevent pregnancy, and that even then it is not foolproof. (You may want to share information like this on birth control methods and their effectiveness.) Finally, let them know why getting pregnant as a teen is typically not a good choice and how it could affect their future.

Talking to your Teen about Sexually Transmitted Infections

You’ll also want to talk to your teen about sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, such as HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV). Unfortunately, teens are at a higher risk of contracting STIs than adults. (As many as 1 in 4 sexually active teen girls has an STI.) This is because they are less likely to use condoms, less likely to get tested for STIs, and more likely to have multiple partners.

Again, let your child know that complete abstinence (no oral, anal, or vaginal sex or skin to skin contact in the genital area) is the only certain way to avoid STIs, and that STIs can have serious consequences, even causing permanent damage to the reproductive system or death. You should also share that condoms are the only birth control method that can reduce STI risk, and that they must be used every time and correctly to lower STI risk. You can also share that anyone who thinks he or she may have an STI should visit a doctor immediately and be honest.

Talking to Your Teen about Your Values and Beliefs

Although making sure your teen has all the facts is very important, you’ll also want to discuss deeper topics related to relationships and sex. These discussions will be as unique as you are, but don’t neglect them. For instance, what do you want your child to know about recognizing healthy relationships and being a good partner? What do you hope for him or her when it comes to romantic relationships and marriage? What are your personal views and values about dating, sex, marriage, and love, and why do you hold them? And what does your teen think about these subjects?  Engage your teen on these topics openly, honestly, and warmly, and listen to what he or she has to say.

Finally, now that you’ve opened the conversation, keep it going. Your conversations with your children about sex and relationships should not be limited to one big “talk.” Look for natural opportunities to bring the subject up, such as mentions of sex and dating in the media or comments about friends and boyfriends and girlfriends. 

And remember to try to stay calm, relaxed and approachable on this subject so that your teen feels at ease opening up to you. It’s not easy being a young person and deciding what to do and believe regarding sex and relationships. Accurate, open, and honest communication from you can help your teen be safer, healthier, and more well-informed.

Resources for Parents and Teens:

Talking with Teens: Lots of info for parents on how to discuss these topics with teens. From the Office of Adolescent Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Talk to Your Kids About Sex: Tips from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

For Teens: How to Make Healthy Decisions About Sex: Guidance for teens on sex, birth control, and relationships. From the American Academy of Pediatrics

Stay Teen: Comprehensive website for teens discussing sex, relationships, STIs, and contraception. Parents may wish to preview. From the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

10 Tips for Parents to Help Their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy: 10 research-based tips from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

About Birth Control: Fact-based information on birth control from the Nemours Foundation.

About Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Fact-based information on STDs from the Nemours Foundation.

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). STDs in adolescents and young adults. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats14/adol.htm

Hutchinson, M. K., & Cederbaum, J. A. (2010). Talking to Daddy’s little girl about sex: Daughters’ reports of sexual communication and support from fathers. Journal of Family Issues. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X10384222

Lagus, K. A., Bernat, D. H., Bearinger, L. H., & Resnick, M. D., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2011). Parental perspectives on sources of sex information for young people. Journal of Adolescent Health, 49, 87-89.

Silk, J., & Romero, D. (2013). The role of parents and families in teen pregnancy prevention. Journal of Family Issues, 35(1), 1339-1362. DOI: 10.1177/0192513X13481330 

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2016).  Talking with teens: Conversation tools. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/resources-and-publications/info/parents/conversation-tools/

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Overview: Teen pregnancy and childbearing. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-health-topics/reproductive-health/teen-pregnancy/