How to talk to your teens (or preteens) about sex

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to about 50 teen and preteen girls about their sexual health. It was part of a local nonprofit’s annual teen summit.  We had a lot of fun – It was 2 hours of the strangest (and most random) set of questions. The only thing I would have changed would be to ask the parents (who had a watchful and occasional judgmental eye on their girls) to go to another room so that the girls could really ask honest questions without fear of scorn. It is important to create a comfortable environment for young girls and adolescents to ask questions about their sexual health. The reality is that they are going to find answers anyway – we may as well ensure that they get the right information. Why? Because I don’t want another girl asking why she has herpes when she is still a virgin – yet she consistently has anal and oral sex. Blank stare. And I do not like that feeling of defeat when I see young women who do not understand the power of social media and the web – sexting so freely without any idea of potential and long-lasting consequences of such actions.  And my heart aches when I talk to another female and have to explain that Love Doesn’t Hurt. And, if you are still not convinced, maybe these stats will change your mind:

  • Among U.S. high school students surveyed in 2011
    • 47.4% had ever had sexual intercourse
    • 33.7% had had sexual intercourse during the previous 3 months, and, of these
      • 39.8% did not use a condom the last time they had sex
      • 76.7% did not use birth control pills or Depo-Provera to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex
      • 15.3% had had sex with four or more people during their life
    • Nearly half of the 19 million new STDs each year are among young people aged 15–24 years
    • More than 400,000 teen girls aged 15–19 years gave birth in 2009

Again, we had a great time. I was on the panel with a dentist, cancer researcher, and health disparities expert. The questions ranged from, ‘What is an orgasm?’, ‘Why can’t some women have children?’, ‘How old were you when you had your first boyfriend/sexual encounter?’, ‘What is Plan B birth control?’, ‘What is a female condom?’, ‘Can your breast fall off from breast cancer?’, ‘Do boys have organisms?’, etc. One of the panelists had been a teen mother herself and she shared her personal story. The message that resonated most was that decisions made in your teen years can affect your entire life. More interestingly, those boys that you swoon over in your high school years may not be what attracts you in your twenties and thirties.  The dentist advised the girls not to date any boy that does not go to the dentist on a regular basis (true, lol).

I enjoy doing this type of community work and try to encourage parents to talk to their teens and adolescents about sex. I provided gift bags to the teens that included: 2 brochures (HPV and Genital Warts; and 50 Things You Need to Know about STDs), a female condom and a male condom, and some smaller goodies. Their assignment was to take this home to their mother/parent or trusted adult and walk through the contents together – hopefully this will start a conversation that could last a lifetime.  Although I know she parented the best she could, my mother was not as open and it is by the grace of God that I did not wind up with 2 kids, an STD and lop-sided breasts before graduating high school. I remember one time as a teen when the cable company gave us HBO/Showtime by mistake. Knowing that the after hours programming was as close to porn as broadcast rules would allow, my mother so brilliantly decided to unplug the cable box in my room. For about 6 hours or so, I thought that the connection was broken (everyone else’s TVs worked though lol). She did not want me to even have access to that programming – lying and saying that my cable box was broken was, in her mind, far easier an approach than just simply saying that sexual content was inappropriate for a girl my age (genius reasoning).  Her rationale only peaked my curiosity; I found a way to watch those XXX shows anyway. *shrugs*  My mother was very strict on me as a teen, which worked in the sense that I made it to college as planned, but it caused a lot of anxiety for me when I had questions about my own sexual health; as a result, the sexual advice of my girlfriends was the gospel truth. Although abstinence is the preferred message from many authorities and parents to their teens, it can have a negative impact – young women can be so ashamed of their sexual activity and curiosity that they do not PLAN for it (no birth control or use of condoms). This is when a young woman can find herself in a situation that just ‘happened’ and continue to make poor choices from there – choose to get an abortion out of fear, be affected by STDs that are preventable, choose to remain in unhealthy relationships, etc.

So, let’s start these important dialogues with our teens and preteens. Here are some quick tips to talk to your teens (or preteen) about sex:

  1. For young girls, this conversation begins well before her teen years. Make sure that your child is involved in activities that boosts their self-esteem and confidence. Make sure that she has strong male role models and that she is continually told that she is special and beautiful by those closest to her. For young boys, teach them that girls/women should be protected and respected.
  2. Find the right time, but do not make the conversation too formal or scripted. Awareness of one’s sexual health is a process that may develop over several years. Let your child know that you are there as a resource for any questions, no matter how small.
  3. Keep an open door and remain from judgment, if possible. Create an environment that is open for sharing. Has your child had a first kiss? If so, with whom? How did it make them feel? Although conversations about sexual activity can be difficult, your child needs to know that you support smart decision-making. Be open to talking with your child about birth control or condom use (and accessibility).
  4. Be a good listener. Try not to lecture your child. Although it may be hard, try to be transparent about some of your experiences as a teen. Be open.
  5. Help your child consider the pros and cons of sexual choices. Explain that sometimes good judgement can be hampered when we think we are in love, when there is drugs/alcohol involved, and when we do not have accurate information about our sexual health.
  6. Teach strategies to managing sexual pressure. Encourage your teen to stay involved in school and community activities, to participate in group activities when possible (e.g. going to the movies with friends), and to recognize environments that could lead to opportunities for sexual pressure (e.g. relaxing on a couch with a boyfriend without adult supervision).
  7. Take the initiative to have this important and ongoing dialogue with your teen. Do not wait until something ‘happens’ or assume that your child is too young. There are some basic discussions that can be had at younger ages (8-10), e.g. understanding your body, explaining  how babies are made; and the details about sexual health can be explained more in depth as they grow older. It is important that you give accurate, and age-appropriate information. This way, the door is open for a two-way conversation.
  8. A broader lesson for sexual health is teaching what a healthy relationship looks like. Make sure that your teen has examples of this and help them to understand that love does not hurt. In fact, a healthy relationship involves communication, caring, concern, responsibility, and support. Teach your teen that they deserve this type of relationship and why they should never compromise. Teach them to listen to their own feelings and to act when they do not feel 100% comfortable in a relationship. There is no rushing in love; encourage them to get to know their partner.
  9. For older teens, explain the dynamics of disease transmission. Even though they may only be seeing one person, they do not know how many people their partner may also be seeing aside from them. Most STDs are transmitted because of multiple partners and unprotected sex.
  10. Share with them the importance of good hygiene and to pay attention to changes in their body.
  11. Teach them the ABC’s of safer sex: Abstinence, Being faithful in relationships, and Consistent and Correct Condom Use. Condoms are not 100% safe, you can still get many STDs when condoms are used. Most importantly, please reiterate that all sex is sex (anal, oral, vaginal, and digital). For teen girls, let them know that their sexual health is their responsibility – it is ok for her to carry her own condoms and/or decide that birth control is the right decision for herself.
  12. Lastly, RELAX. Exploring one’s body and sexual health is a natural process. Your comfort will allow your teen to also be comfortable with this subject.

Lastly, there is a nifty Teen Survival Guide developed by GirlsHealth.gov that is a great conversation starter.  I recommend sharing it with your pre-teen between 10 and 12 years of age. It covers a range of health tips for young girls, including topics like menstruation, sexual health, smoking and drinking, and self-esteem. You can access a PDF of the book or order your copy here.

Here is another resource from the Anti-Drug Campaign:

Please share your tips and stories with us. FC&L is also available to speak to your teen groups as well.

Statistical source: CDC

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