Don't think sex is on your kid's mind? Think again.
One in five children are having sex before they turn 15 and only 30 percent of parents are aware that it's happening. What's even more alarming is that most sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur in young women ages 15-19 and the United States has the highest amount of teen pregnancies of any industrialized nation. "More teens than ever are engaging in unprotected sex," according to Dr. Laura Berman, author of Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Turning "the talk" Into a Conversation For Life (DK Publishing). Dr. Berman says these statistics can be attributed to abstinence-only education. "They're told not to do it but they aren't getting information about pregnancy and STD prevention either," she says.
And sexual activity isn't strictly intercourse either, with half of the teenage population having oral sex and one in 10 teens having anal sex. "There is such an emphasis on virginity right now and what that has inadvertently done is to encourage other forms of sexual activity that you can do and still technically be a virgin," says Amber Madison, a 26-year-old sex educator, lecturer and author of Talking Sex With Your Kids (Adams Media). "It's important for parents to tell their kids that just because you can have oral sex and still be considered a virgin, it doesn't mean it's not a big deal," she says.
STDs are serious business, and once you have one you're at a greater risk for contracting HIV if you're exposed. "Most STDs have signs that are very subtle, but it's not the message most kids are getting in their health classes," says Madison, who adds that teens think that if they don't see sores on their partners' genitals, they're safe. Yet herpes and genital warts aren't always visible and teens can have human papillomavirus (HPV) and not show signs. Although many STDs are curable, others, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, can permanently damage a woman's reproductive system if they're not treated early. And even if a condom is used, herpes can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during foreplay or even just when cuddling naked.
Communication is Key
Even if your children aren't teenagers yet, starting the conversation early can help prevent them from making unhealthy physical and emotional decisions when they're faced with peer pressure later on. "You want to start the conversation before they're overwhelmed by hormones, and sexual thoughts and feelings," says Dr. Berman. "If you've already established a respectful, mutual relationship with them around these topics, they're going to be much more open and communicative with you at an otherwise very un-open time."
Dr. Berman says that parents should be the primary source of information and that "teachable moments" allow them to present and reinforce the information several times throughout childhood and during the teen years. "You can have the identical conversation about the mechanics of sex at four different points in their lives and they will hear the information completely differently because of where they're at developmentally," says Dr. Berman. Teachable moments can start as early as two years old by using the correct names for their body parts in the bathtub or on the changing table. "From a very early age, you help give them support and strategies for combating peer and social pressure and help them feel good about their bodies and who they are as human beings. The more they feel positively, the more empowered they are to say 'no' to sexual pressure and to protect themselves." And when they're tweens and teens, starting conversations by asking them what they think about teen celebrities in the news or magazine headlines and then giving your own thoughts are also great teachable moment opportunities. "It's not a speech, it's a conversation. The more you listen to and embrace their thoughts and opinions without judgment, the more open they're going to be with you and the easier it's going to be to communicate your own ideas," Dr Berman says. Many parents are concerned that by giving the information, they're giving their kids permission or that somehow they'll be corrupted, which simply isn't true, she says. "At each stage, you are imparting and wrapping the information in your own family values in context."
Sex Talk Dos and Don'ts
- DO be open to your kids' ideas while sharing your own values.
- DO respect your child's privacy
- DON'T avoid the conversation, be judgmental or lie to your kids.
- DON'T create ambiguous parameters like "You can have sex when you're in love, or when you have a boyfriend."
- DON'T wait until you think your kid is about to have sex.
Fear No More
Getting over your own fears about sex is the first step. Madison suggests looking in the mirror and repeating the words, "penis, vagina, oral sex, anal sex" over and over to yourself. "Get used to saying the words and don't be too clinical; use words you normally would when talking to your kids," she says. If you simply don't have the vocabulary or the answers, Dr. Berman says it's okay to do some research and get back to them. Talking to your kids about sex may not be the easiest thing for either of you, but in the long run, it will pay off. "There are a lot of things they don't want to do, but you make them do because it's important for their health," says Madison. "Maybe they won't like it at the time, but when they're in a situation where they have to use some of the information and values that you taught them, they'll be so happy they have it."
Love and Support
Research shows that kids with low self-esteem are more likely to make unhealthy sexual decisions that will affect them both physically and emotionally. Yet parents can empower their children to respect their bodies and, in turn, protect themselves. "The most important thing parents can understand when talking to their kids about sex is that they need to address the emotional issues that are important," says Madison, who encourages girls in particular to look at their vaginas and know what's normal and what isn't. "Teach them that there's nothing shameful or dirty about their genitals; until you're comfortable with your own body, you're probably not comfortable enough to be having sex," she says. The emotional component is also very important when young men make the decision to have sex. "Boys also need to know that they shouldn't automatically be ready for or have sex just because they're guys," she says.
You may shudder at the thought that your kids have had or will have sex in the future and it's okay to tell your kids that because of religious or moral reasons you don't approve of them having sex until they're married, but remember that they may not always make the decisions you want them to. "Be realistic and know that there is a possibility they may not make that choice, so then you need to talk with them about how to keep themselves safe," says Madison. "Show them that you care about their health and their physical and emotional well-being more than anything," she adds. "You want to give your kids advice they can use throughout the rest of their sexual lives."