Parents: Please Talk to Your Children about Sex By Barbara Huberman, RN, BSN, MEd, Director of Education and Outreach, Advocates for Youth

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Even thinking about talking with teens about contraception sends many parents frantically running for the exit. In the United States today, about 60 percent of high school seniors and 85 percent of 20-year-old youth have had sex; 50 percent of all new HIV infections occur in 15- to 25-year-old youth; and about 750,000 teen girls experience a pregnancy each year. Parents cannot afford to remain silent about contraception when talking with teens.
Young Americans grow up in a society that uses sex to sell every product imaginable—from cars to cola. And the newest sex educator, the Internet, has perils as well as positives in what it offers related to sex.
So what's a parent to do? What are the important messages parents need to convey to their children so that teens will protect themselves and their partners against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and will grow up to become sexually healthy adults? Here are some tips for talking with teens—female and male—about contraception and condoms.

  1. Assume that teens have had no instruction about contraceptive methods. Most schools don't teach this subject. Teens may say they know all about contraception, but much of their "knowledge" is myth and misinformation. If you feel that you just can't talk about contraception, then ask a health care provider, relative, or friend for help.
  2. It's possible to talk with a teen about not having sexual intercourse while still fully educating him/her about contraception and condoms. Your teen will need this information, at some point in life. Just remember that talking about both abstinence and contraception does not send a mixed message. Parents need to empower teens to act responsibly, by saying, "When you decide to be sexually intimate with someone you care about, always, alwaysuse protection against pregnancy and STIs."
  3. Share your hopes and expectations with your teen, the hope that the teen will wait until he/she is older and more mature. At the same time, realize that most teens do not wait, especially not until marriage. Today, most young men are nearly 29 when they marry, and young women are nearly 27. Over 90 percent of American adults say they experienced sexual intercourse prior to marriage.
  4. Know that not all children are heterosexual. Regardless of sexual orientation, all teens need information about preventing pregnancy and STIs. During their teenage years, many teens experiment—regardless of their sexual orientation. Lesbian and bisexual teenage women may experience pregnancy. Gay and bisexual teenage men may father a pregnancy. Like all other teens, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are vulnerable to STIs, including HIV.
  5. Emphasize that sexual health is not only about using condoms and birth control but also about staying healthy, lifelong. Teens need to know where they can go for health care and treatment before they are sexually active. Teenage women frequently say that fear of a pelvic exam (second only to fear of parental discovery) is their reason for waiting six to 18 months after initiating sex before they see a health care provider about contraception. Young men also delay talking with a physician about their sexual health. Teenage men may feel uncomfortable in family planning clinics because these are often geared mostly toward serving women, and they may be reluctant to go to a public health clinic, fearing that they will run into someone they know. Male teens need to know that many family planning clinics are eager to serve young men; female teens need to know that most family planning clinics do not require a pelvic exam before prescribing birth control.
  6. Share information about emergency contraception (EC) and encourage teenage women to have EC at hand in case of an emergency. EC is available over the counter for anyone ages 18 and over. If your teen is under the age of 18, call 1-888-NOT-2-LATE to find an EC provider.
  7. Talk about using condoms and hormonal methods of birth control . Using two methods at the same time allows young men and women to share the responsibility to be safe and healthy. Condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV and gonorrhea and also lower the risk for other STIs. They are also very effective at preventing pregnancy—compared to an 85 percent chance of experiencing pregnancy when a couple uses no method of protection.
  8. Talk with your teen about "being swept away." When interviewed about why they did not use condoms or contraception, many young people say, "I wasn't planning it. It just happened. We got swept away and didn't use anything." Make clear to your teen that this is not okay. Say, "You must be prepared, or else you simply don't have sex. This is the mature way to act." In the words of one wise teen, "using condoms is just not that difficult. You either use condoms and birth control, or you just don't do it."
  9. What do you do if you find condoms or birth control in your teen's room or pants pocket? Take a deep breath and remember that this is evidence of your teen's being responsible. Use this as an opportunity to open up a conversation with your teen. This is one of those times when you can share your feelings and values, support your teen in being responsible, and talk together about intimacy, love, responsibility, and committed relationships.
  10. Don't talk as though there is only one kind of sexual intercourse. Teens aren't sure what "having sex" means. Many today see oral and/or anal sex as ways to avoid "having sex." These teens often do not realize that oral sex and anal sex actually are sexual intercourse and that each involves high risk for STIs.
  11. Make sure that your teen has at least one other adult to whom she/he can go for help in an emergency. Give your teen permission to confide in someone else, a person the teen can trust for guidance and support. That other adult could be a relative, clergy person, teacher, counselor, health provider, or friend. Just make sure that you and your teen both know who the other adult is, rather than just assuming that your teen has "someone" to whom he/she can go. No young person should go through a difficult situation without help.
  12. Finally, remember that when parents express love and caring to their children, they teach them to love themselves. Then, parents are raising young people who will be likely to use condoms and effective contraception to protect themselves when, eventually, they choose to have sex.

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