A new study has found that parents are saying too little, too late when it comes to talking with children about sex. Here’s why and when you should step in.
The Harvard study, published in the current issue of Pediatrics, found that parents tend to wait until after their teens become sexually active to discuss sex with them. While it’s good that parents are talking about sex at all, they clearly need to do it sooner if they hope to influence their teens’ behavior.
The study participants included teens ages 13-17 and their parents. With about 140 participants, the sample was small, but the findings are important.
- 1 in 4 girls said their parents hadn’t taught them how to resist pressure for sex
- 2/3 of the boys said their parents did not teach them how to use a condom
- 2 in 5 girls said that they had not discussed contraceptives with a parent
- 2 in 5 girls had not discussed what to do if a partner refuses to use a condom
- Boys and girls reported their parents did not discuss protection against sexually transmitted infection or the lesson that “no means no”
I suspect that the discrepancy is caused by parents’ incorrect assumptions about the age at which their children will become interested in sex and the peer pressures facing even those children who aren’t yet interested in sex.
Many parents I speak with are so focused on discussing puberty-related changes with their children that they forget the big picture. Yes, it’s important to talk about changing needs for hygeine and grooming, about erections and menstrual periods, and about family rules for dating curfews.
But letting a teen date without discussing sexual activity is like giving a teen car keys without driving lessons. Your teen may manage to avoid injury, but doesn’t it make sense to teach the rules of the road first?
A report in the August 2009 issue of Contraception included data on teens’ sexual debut, i.e., when they have their first sexual experience. The researchers found that by age 17…
- 28% of Asian females and 33% of Asian males have had sex
- 58% of white females and 53% white males have had sex
- 59% of Latina females and 69% of Latino males have had sex
- 74% African American females and 82% African American males have had sex
Parents of any race may assume their teens are non-sexually active, and statistically, some of those parents would be right. But why leave it to chance? One thing we know for sure, after decades of study, is that discussing sex does not lead teens to be more sexually active. Indeed, some teens decide to put off becoming sexually active after discussing the potential positive and negative impacts of sexual activity.
Since teens are unlikely to state, over dinner, that they are considering having sex, it’s wise to initiate conversations yourself. Advocates for Youth, a terrific sexuality education resource site for educators and parents, offers handy sex ed guidelines for when should parents start talking, and about what, so that conversations are developmentally appropriate.
Some parents who believe their teens are considering sexual activity or may already be active keep condoms and back-up contraception (foam, film, sponge, jelly) in the house. The next step should be to talk with adolescents and teens about the decision making that should take place prior to using contraception:
- Am I safe emotionally and physically with this person?
- How might my personal and spiritual values affect my decisions about sexual activity?
- Can I trust this person to maintain my dignity and privacy?
- Have this partner and I discussed how having sex might affect us individually and as a couple?
- How would my partner and I respond to an unplanned pregnancy?
- What kind of contraception should we use, and suppose my partner won’t use contraception?
- Do we need to be tested for sexually transmitted infections?
- What should I do if my partner wants to do something I don’t want to do?
- If I have sex, can I decide not to do it again?
- If we decide not to have sex now, how can we express closeness and intimacy within our boundaries?
These are important questions for teens to consider before becoming sexually active, and you can help by, at the very least, bringing the questions to your teens’ attention. Even better, offer to help your teen think through all the possible answers and their ramifications.
Melanie J. Davis, MEd, CSE is the founder of Honest Exchange LLC, a sexuality education consulting firm in Somerville, NJ. http://www.honestexchange.com She is a blogger and the author of “Sexuality Talking Points: A Guide to Thoughtful Conversation between Parents and Children.” She is the co-founder and Director of Education Services for the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness in Bedminster, NJ. http://www.njsexualwellness.com