Sex Talkā€”More Is Better

A new Rand study shows that you've got to keep returning to the birds and bees.


Corrected on 3/3/08: The original version of this article incorrectly cited publication information for a new RAND study. It appears in the March Pediatrics.

Is there a parent alive who doesn't dread giving "the talk" about sex? And is there a teenager on this planet who doesn't cringe when the folks say it's time to "talk"? Parents, there's good news and bad news. Repeated conversations about tough topics like masturbation or condoms make teens feel closer to their parents and more able to communicate with them about sex and other hot topics, according to new research.

But once won't do it. "This very much contradicts the notion that you can have one big talk about sex and be done with it," says Steven Martino, a social psychologist with Rand who led the study, which is published in the March Pediatrics. "[That's] appealing, because you feel uncomfortable. But this study suggests that it's important to have those discussions repeatedly."

Over a year, Martino surveyed about 300 10-to-15-year-olds and their parents, asking how often they talked about topics like the consequences of getting pregnant or how well condoms work to prevent sexually transmitted disease. Families who had repeated discussions 10 or more times a year reported the more positive results. The study didn't examine how much the kids learned but whether parents and children felt closer and better able to communicate. "The more often you return to topics the better," Martino says. That's particularly true with topics where the child's experiences and perceptions change over time, like how to make decisions on whether to have sex. "Eventually they're going to be in this situation, and they'll come back to you and say, 'I want to talk about this.' "

It's easy to imagine the groans emerging from parents as they read this: Oh no, more painfully uncomfortable talks? Fortunately, there are ways to make this easier. First, it's OK to admit to the kids that you feel uncomfortable talking about sex but are going to forge ahead. Second, Martino says, let kids direct the discussions. Get a sense of what question they're interested in, and answer only that question. (Kids need information they can process a bit at a time, rather than an encyclopedia of sex.) Third, practice when children are younger, starting in the preschool years, when the questions are a lot easier, like, "How does the baby get out of your tummy?" Once it's established that your family does talk about these things, children will be more apt to come to parents with the big, scary questions, too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers pragmatic, age-appropriate advice on talking to kids about sex.

In your family, what's worked? What hasn't?

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