Talk to your teens about sex

Emily Scribner-O'Pray
May is national Teen Pregnancy Prevention month and
May 5 is the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Why is there a special month and day to recognize the importance of preventing teen pregnancy?

  • 3 in 10 girls in the U.S. will get pregnant before the age of 20
  • 1 in 6 girls in the U.S. will be a teen mom
  • The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world – twice as high as Canada or England, and eight times as high as the Netherlands or Japan

With these sobering statistics, who do you think teens say has the most sway when it comes to decisions about sex? Friends? The media? No. Teens say that parents most influence their decisions about sex. (And by “parents” I mean whoever is in the role of being the primary caregiver – I know there are many grandparents, stepparents, aunts, older siblings, foster parents and others who take on this important role.)

Parents underestimate the power of their relationship with their teens. Teens, after all, are often at a stage in life where they are pulling away from their families, spending more time outside of the house, have more access to media, and their peer group is ever more important to them. While this is a normal and healthy part of development, parents often see this as a rejection, especially when combined with the emotional ups and downs that can accompany the teen years. In fact, teens still need and want their parents to be involved in their lives.

Talking to teens about sex can be hard. Many parents don’t know where to start. As a health educator and youth worker, I have talked with thousands of kids about sex, and I’ll tell you a secret – it’s much harder to talk to my own. As an educator I am a neutral person who has valuable information. I can use what both research and my personal experience tells me works. I know that giving kids information about sex is helpful and not harmful. But when I talk with my own kids it has a different feeling. I know my words carry a different weight.

At the same time, I know that I have the important job of sharing our family’s values around sex and relationships with my kids. They can only get that information from their dad and me. I hope that my children have adults outside of our family that they can talk to as well. However, as one of the two people in the world who love them more than anyone else does, I have a perspective that is vital for them to have.

Oftentimes, the hardest part is getting started. It can feel awkward to bring up the subject of sex, especially if it’s not something that has been part of your family conversation all along. It’s OK to feel awkward – just acknowledge it. You can say something like “This is hard for me to talk about, but it’s really important to me that you know that you can come to me with questions or concerns about sex.”

A lot of parents save up for the “Big Talk”. Don’t – it works much better to have many smaller, shorter conversations over time. For better or worse, we live in a culture that offers us many “teachable moments” – use those to your advantage. We are bombarded with messages about sex everywhere in our society – from music to TV shows to magazines and the Internet. This gives an opportunity to share our thoughts, and to ask our teens about theirs. And remember that it’s important to talk about more than just the “plumbing.” Teens want to know what you think about relationships, love, communication, and other aspects related to sexuality too.

There isn’t one right way to go about talking with your teen. Do what works for you – just be sure you do it! Give kids lots of reassurance and remember that this can be a confusing time of life. They deserve to get your help in navigating their way through these years. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced when trying to talk to your teens about sex?


Emily Scribner-O’Pray is the Community Services Supervisor at Teenage Medical Service. Read more about Emily.

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