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Talking with Your Teen about Sex

Why is teen sex a problem?

Nearly half of all teens have had sex by the age of 17.

Nearly half of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are in 15- to 24-year-olds. Condoms are the only birth control method that can prevent STIs.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of teens between 15 and 19 get pregnant. Almost all teen pregnancies are unplanned.

The only way to prevent pregnancy that is 100% effective is not to have sex. If your teen has sexual intercourse, there is always some risk of pregnancy.

Many teens report that their decisions about sex were influenced by talking with their parents. Teens who have good talks with their parents about sex are more likely to postpone sexual activity, have fewer partners, and use birth control when they have sex.

How should I set the stage?

Build a strong and natural bond by showing an interest in her friends, school work, and activities. No matter what you want to talk about, it helps if you have a loving, trusting relationship with your child. This makes it easier for your teen to talk honestly with you when she faces peer pressure.

Let your teen speak her mind, and show that you want to know what she thinks and feels. Your teen is more likely to talk with you about important issues if she feels that you really listen. Think about how your teen might react to what you want to say and how best to respond to her questions and feelings. Try to talk when both of you have time and are feeling relaxed.

Short, simple talks through childhood and the teen years will get the message across better than trying to cover everything in just one talk. Offer information that fits your child's age and ability to understand. If you are watching TV with your 6 year-old and sex is mentioned on a program, you can say, "Do you know where babies come from?" If your child has questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Take advantage of "teachable moments." A friend's pregnancy, neighborhood gossip, and TV shows can all be ways to talk with your teen.

It is a good idea to start talking about sex with children before girls have their first menstrual period or boys have their first wet dream, so they will know that these events are normal. It is also important to tell them that sex should involve commitment, trust, self-esteem, and love. It's OK to feel nervous about this topic.

What should I say?

Make it a conversation, not a lecture. Kids, especially teens, hate to be lectured. It’s helpful to know what she and her friends are talking about and if her friends are having sex. Trying to scare kids does not keep them from having sex. Try asking your child what she already knows. For example:

  • Have you had sex education in school? What did they teach you?
  • Are you embarrassed about being a virgin? Do you think it's okay to say no?
  • At what age do you think a person is ready to have sex? How do you decide?
  • What would you say if someone asked you to have sex?
  • What do you know about oral sex?
  • What do you know about diseases like herpes and HIV?

The best you can do is give your child correct information, for example:

  • The only way to be risk-free is to not have sex.
  • Drugs and alcohol may cause you to have sex and be sorry later.
  • Use a latex condom for any kind of sexual intercourse. Condoms fail to protect against pregnancy at least 10% of the time. The risk of failure to protect both partners from HIV is even greater. Other forms of birth control (for example, pills, diaphragms, IUDs, and patches) are useless against HIV.
  • You cannot tell from looking at someone if they have AIDS. The only way to know if someone has AIDS is to ask if they have been tested.

Encourage questions and feedback from your child. For example, "How old do I have to be to have sex?" doesn't necessarily mean, "I'm thinking about having sex." Stay calm and accept your child’s questions at face value. Use open-ended questions when you talk with your child, rather than questions that require just a “yes or no” answer.

Talking about safe sex does not encourage teens to have sex. However, if your teen is thinking about having sex for the first time or is already having sex, make sure she knows how to prevent pregnancy and infection.

Share your family values with your teen and talk about what you believe is right and wrong. Your teen needs your advice on values. Be clear about your values and let her know that others may have different values about sexuality. Teach your teen that healthy relationships are built on respect and concern, and that it’s OK to say no to sex.

Talk about topics such as sexual orientation, sexual abuse, prostitution, sexual harassment, and rape. If your teen doesn’t want to talk with you about sex and says “it’s none of your business”, let her know that it is your responsibility as a parent. Let your teen know that she can come to you for help if something happens.

If you need advice about how to talk to your teen about sex, or think your teen may already be having sex, talk with your healthcare provider, school nurse, or religious leader.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-27
Last reviewed: 2014-10-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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