Parents are all too often failing to talk with their teenagers about sex before they become sexually active, according to a new survey. Almost half of teens had intercourse before their parents got around to talking with them about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. And boys are most likely to miss out on the conversation; nearly two thirds of teenage boys surveyed said their parents had not talked to them about using condoms before they became sexually active, while about 25 percent of parents and their daughters said they hadn't talked about how to resist pressure to have sex.
This documentation of our failure to give our children guidance isn't a huge surprise. I can't be the only parent who already cringes at the prospect of having "the talk," even though my daughter is still in grade school. Still, these survey results—from researchers at Rand Corp., Virginia Commonwealth University, and Children's Hospital Boston—clearly show how we parents are letting our own squeamishness win out over taking care of our children.
I interviewed Mark Schuster, one of the survey authors, last year about his "Talking Parents, Healthy Teens" program, which, during lunch sessions at his office, teaches parents how to talk with their kids about sex. Schuster, who is chief of general pediatrics at Children's and a coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask), helps scaredy-cat parents like me learn how to teach invaluable lessons, like how to say no to sex. He stresses that an ongoing dialogue with teenagers is key; that way, they will feel comfortable coming back for more questions and discussion as they mature.
This new information, published online in Pediatrics, comes from a survey of the 141 "Talking Parent, Healthy Teens" parents and their teenage children, ages 13 to 17. It's unusual because it didn't rely on participants' memories about their talks, which in studies past has meant responses like, "Oh, yeah, we talked about that before she became sexually active." Instead, this survey polled parents and kids over the course of a year. The remembrance, it turns out, was rosier than reality:
- More than half of the teenagers had engaged in genital touching before discussing with their parents birth control effectiveness, resisting pressure for sex, and the importance of condom use.
- More than 40 percent of the teenagers had intercourse before their parents had talked with them about key health issues, including symptoms of STDs, choosing birth control, or what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom.
- Girls were more likely than boys to have had talks with parents about sex, except when the topic was some aspect of male physiology, such as wet dreams. But still, about 40 percent of girls had intercourse before talking with their parents about how to choose a form of birth control.
We parents aren't total mopes; the topics covered in the parental talks shifted as the children matured, with earlier conversations focusing on sex in relationships and female sexual development, while later conversations were about STDs, pregnancy prevention, and what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom. But clearly we could do much, much better.
How can parents do better at having conversations with our children about sexuality? Schuster says we should:
- Set the stage when kids are young. "If parents say things like 'You're too young to ask,' or 'Mommy will tell you when she comes home from work,' then kids learn pretty quickly, 'I shouldn't be asking my parents about these questions.' It's much better to set the stage early on that we're exactly who you should come to for anything sensitive, anything troubling," he says.
- Don't do one big talk. "You're so scared of leaving something out you forget half of what you wanted to say," Schuster says. "It's much better to talk about things as they come up."
- Don't be afraid to tell your kids that talking about sex embarrasses you. Explain that you're talking about it because it's your responsibility as a parent, and it's the right thing to do.
One third of ninth graders have had intercourse, Schuster notes, so kids need to be up to speed on STDs, birth control, and other health-protective measures by middle school. That will make it easier during high school to have the conversations about whether they're ready to have sex, how to be comfortable refusing sex, and your opinion and values. Then, Schuster says, "you have a real chance to have a dialogue about these issues."