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Sex and Your Teen

By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

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Today, nearly 70 percent of all high school seniors engage in sexual intercourse before graduating, one in eight contracts a sexually transmitted disease (STD) each year and more than 80 percent of all STD cases occur among those under 29.

And, an estimated one in five adolescent girls has an STD and doesn't know it. If you're a parent - even if your child is still in diapers - I bet you're white-knuckled with fear right about now. Don't be.

The good news on the youth and STD front is that regardless of what you might think, parents still play a critical role in their adolescent's behavior, both in terms of the behavior you model yourself, and in terms of the communication between you and your teen. And, believe it or not, your kids themselves have said in surveys that they're in need of information to prevent pregnancy and disease. Unfortunately, the U.S. falls far behind other countries in providing this information, with one international report finding that Iran provides more consistent sexual and reproductive health education for young people than the U.S.

I find that reprehensible. And I urge you to take a more active role in your child's sexual health. This involves insuring that at least once per year your adolescent is seen by a competent health care professional who specializes in adolescent health.

But taking your child to a health care professional doesn't let you off the hook. Study after study proves that when parents talk to their kids about sexual issues, their kids listen. And don't worry that talking about sex is the same as condoning it - numerous studies dispute that theory. In fact, studies show that when parents talk about sex, children are more likely to talk about it themselves, to delay their first sexual experiences and to protect themselves against pregnancy and disease when they do have sex.

This doesn't mean the only discussion you can have with child is about protection. After all, abstinence is the best protection against both pregnancy and STDs.

If you're uncomfortable talking to your kids, turn them on to the StayTeen.org, a website specifically designed for adolescents.

Parenting an adolescent makes the stresses of infancy seem like a tropical vacation. But with strong communication, active listening and lots of love and respect (on both sides), you - and your kids - can make it through and remain healthy.

Talking to Your Kids

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shares these 10 tips for talking to your kids about tough issues (it's safe to say that sex is one of the toughest). In your discussion, stress the importance of abstaining from alcohol and drugs; a study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that almost one-quarter of sexually active teens and young adults - about 5.6 million 15- to 24-year olds annually - report having unprotected sex because they were drinking or using drugs at the time.

  1. Start early. Once kids reach their teenage years, they tend to depend more on friends, outsiders and the media for information.

  2. Initiate conversations with your child. Watch TV or movies with your kids. The numerous public service announcements on youth-oriented stations, as well as sexually explicit scenes, are a perfect opening for a frank discussion.

  3. Don't be nervous. Just do it. If you don't tell them about sex, someone else will.

  4. Create an open environment. Let your children know you're open to their questions.

  5. Communicate your own values. Research shows that children want and need moral guidance from their moms and dads; don't hesitate to make your beliefs clear. If you're a single parent, pay attention to your own sexual conduct; you can bet your teenager will.

  6. Listen to your child. Find time to give him or her your undivided attention.

  7. Try to be honest. And don't leave any big gaps in the information you provide.

  8. Be patient. Resist the impulse to finish your children's sentences and let them think at their own pace.

  9. Use everyday opportunities to talk. In the car, while watching television, when putting away the groceries.

  10. Talk about it again. And again.