Ringing bells on pregnancy prevention is not just it, and neither is presenting scary statistics about sexually transmitted diseases. Let teens understand that sex is about relationships.
When most parents talk with their teens about sex, they likely focus too thin on the dangers and lows of being sexually active, experts say. The focus is often on preventing pregnancy, and if sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are brought up at all, they’re discussed in scary terms.
“Do not engage sex, for you will get pregnant and die” sums up the message that a majority of parents give to their kids, says Hannah Witton, a popular sex vlogger in London and the author of Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex.
Though it is important to make sure your kids are aware of the risks of being sexually active, assisting them to make informed choices is also key — telling them what they should know about their bodies, as well as pointing out the emotional aspects of having a sex life. These will not be the easiest conversations you’ll ever have, but openly communicating can promote safe behaviors when it comes to sex and a healthy outlook about intimacy.
Bypass the Scare Tactics and Give the Facts
Educators who study parent-child communication around sex confirm Witton’s report. “Parents talk [with their children] about what can occur if you have sex or unprotected sex,” says Julie Dombrowski, MD, MPH, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. They normally stress the lows of sex, she says, and often focus on pregnancy prevention. But such shallow exchanges are not enough to help kids cope with their sex lives they may have already begun or will soon be starting, says Dr. Dombrowski.
She warns parents not to try to terrify their kids with the damaging effects an STD can cause. “Using sexually transmitted infections as a scare tactic is not effective,” she says. It doesn’t make kids conduct their sex lives more safely. And it adds to the stigma if they do develop an STD at some point. Stigma only makes it harder for young people to get care for themselves and communicate responsibly with their partners.
What actually promotes healthy choices among young people is clear, honest communication with adults they trust. According to a study published by the Guttmacher Institute, kids trusted respected adults in their life more than the web as a bed of information about sex. Still, kids are increasingly turning to digital media to fill in gaps in their education. This is especially the case for LGBTQ youth, the Guttmacher Institute notes in a fact sheet published in 2017.
Teenagers need good information. While majority of high school students are not sexually active, over one-third of them are. In 2017, more than one-half (60 percent) of all students in grades 9 to 12 reported that they had not yet had sex, according to another Guttmacher Institute study, published in 2018. Of course, that meant that 40 percent of them did report having had sexual intercourse.
Try a Calm Approach That Balances the Negative With the Positive
Pros in comprehensive sex education encourage talking with a young person matter-of-factly. It’s nice to talk about the positive aspects of having a sex life for a person mature enough to handle one, as well as the risks of sexual activity, they say. Parents can be calm while encouraging their kids to wait till they’re older to start their sex lives.
Be Sure You Know What You’re Talking About First
When talking to your kids about sex, you want to be well armed and up-to-date. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program called “Parents Matter.”
Empower Your Kids With Knowledge
“The better your child knows about the risks that accompanies sexual activity, the more equipped he will be to make smart sexual decisions,” states Laura Berman, PhD, a sex and relationships educator in Chicago and Los Angeles and the author of Talking to Your Kids about Sex: Turning “The Talk” Into a Conversation for Life.
Don’t avoid talking about sex with your kids for fear that bringing up the subject will make the kids think you condone early sexual activity.Parents can clarify their wishes for their child and can encourage abstinence. “But neglecting to give any further information [beyond urging abstinence] can be dangerous,” Dr. Berman warns. Even if you want them to abstain from sex, you ought to talk with them so if they do have sex, they do so as safely as possible.
Here’s language Berman suggests for parents in this position: “I am not giving you information about condoms and birth control because I think you’re ready to have sex. I don’t think you’re ready for such a big step. But I want you to have the information you need to be safe if you do decide to have sex.”
In discussing sex with your kids, take into account beliefs and practices current among today’s teenagers. It’s important to address the fact that oral and anal sex are increasingly common among teenagers, Berman says. Kids often favor these activities because they don’t involve the risk of pregnancy. Also, many teens don’t think of them as “sex” in the same way that they think of intercourse as sex.
About one-half of adolescents have had oral sex, and just more than 1 in 10 have had anal sex, according to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (ReCAPP). Berman urges parents to teach their kids that all these acts are indeed sexual acts, and can lead to STD transmission. Teach boys to wear condoms during these sex acts and teach girls about using dental dams.
“Break it down that even using protection doesn’t make sex 100 percent safe,” states Berman. You should truthfully tell your kids that no contraceptive and no condoms work all the time. There are no foolproof methods, they can become pregnant and they can contract an STD, despite using condoms.
Talk about emotional aspects of sexual relationships, not just physical ones. Remind your children that taking steps to protect themselves from STDs and an unplanned pregnancy will not protect them emotionally. Explain kindly that handling sexual relationships can take a lot of emotional maturity. Suggest that your child may wind up happier if they wait till they are older to become sexually active.
Help your kids find good answers online. “Make sure your kids know where to get [reliable] information without talking to you,” says Dombrowski. Steer them to trustworthy, youth-friendly websites, including the following:
- I Wanna Know This provides facts and support for young adults, from the American Sexual Health Association. www.IWannaKnow.org
- Teens Health This site answers to questions about puberty, birth control, STDs, and more. www.KidsHealth.org
- Young Men’s Health Also from Boston Children’s Hospital, this site has quizzes about contraception and readiness for sex. Visitors can also post questions. www.YoungMensHealthSite.org
- Amaze This entertaining, informative site promises all the answers a kid needs. “More info. Less weird,” is its motto. www.Amaze.org
- The Center for Young Women’s Health This site is produced by Boston Children’s Hospital, and offers comprehensive info in Spanish and English. www.YoungWomensHealth.org
What if You Just Can’t Discuss Sex With Your Kids?
If you are in this shoes, at least make sure that your child has easy access to good information about sexual health, advises Dombrowski.
Give your kids links to websites (listed above) for comprehensive sexual education and pick up a good book (such as Berman’s or Witton’s) at the library. Or get some handouts at a community health center or Planned Parenthood site. Then leave them in places where the kids will see them. Leave out some condoms too, suggests Dombrowski.
In her book, Witton covers nearly every sexual topic imaginable, but her favorite subject, she says, is communication. “Communication might be the hardest [subject],” she writes, “because it’s about opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Opening up can be scary.”
Your kids will probably experience that scariness in their sexual relationships. And you too, as the parent who loves them, may experience it in raising the tough but vital subjects of sex and sexual health.
Take heart in this advice from Planned Parenthood: “Even if they sometimes seem awkward or aloof, most kids do want information about bodies, sex and relationships from their parents and they are listening to you.”