Even thinking about talking with teens about contraception sends many
parents frantically running for the exit. In the United States today,
about 60 percent of high school seniors and 85 percent of 20-year-old
youth have had sex; 50 percent of all new HIV infections occur in 15- to
24-year-old youth; and about 850,000 teen girls experience a pregnancy
each year. Parents cannot afford to remain silent about contraception
when talking with teens.
Young Americans grow up in a society
that uses sex to sell every product imaginable—from cars to cola. And
the newest sex educator, the Internet, has perils as well as positives
in what it offers related to sex.
So what’s a parent to do? What
are the important messages parents need to convey to their children so
that teens will protect themselves and their partners against unintended
pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and will grow up
to become sexually healthy adults? Here are some tips for talking with
teens—female and male—about contraception and condoms.
- Assume that teens have had no instruction about contraceptive
methods. Most schools don’t teach this subject. Teens may say they know
all about contraception, but much of their “knowledge” is myth and
misinformation. If you feel that you just can’t talk about contraception, then ask a health care provider, relative, or friend for help.
- It’s possible to talk with a teen about not having sexual
intercourse while still fully educating him/her about contraception and
condoms. Your teen will need this information, at some point in
life. Just remember that talking about both abstinence and
contraception does not send a mixed message. Parents need to empower
teens to act responsibly, by saying, “When you decide to be sexually
intimate with someone you care about, always, always use protection against pregnancy and STIs.”
- Share your hopes and expectations with your teen, the hope that
the teen will wait until he/she is older and more mature. At the same
time, realize that most teens do not wait, especially not until
marriage. Today, most young men are nearly 29 when they marry, and young
women are nearly 27. Over 90 percent of American adults say they
experienced sexual intercourse prior to marriage.
- Accept that not all children are heterosexual. Regardless of
sexual orientation, all teens need information about preventing
pregnancy and STIs. During their teenage years, many teens
experiment—regardless of their sexual orientation. Lesbian and bisexual
teenage women may experience pregnancy. Gay and bisexual teenage men may
father a pregnancy. Like all other teens, gay, lesbian, and bisexual
teens are vulnerable to STIs, including HIV.
- Emphasize that sexual health is not only about using condoms
and birth control but also about staying healthy, lifelong. Teens need
to know where they can go for health care and treatment before
they are sexually active. Teenage women frequently say that fear of a
pelvic exam (second only to fear of parental discovery) is their reason
for waiting six to 18 months after initiating sex before they
see a health care provider about contraception. Young men also delay
talking with a physician about their sexual health. Teenage men may feel
uncomfortable in family planning clinics because these are often geared
mostly toward serving women, and they may be reluctant to go to a
public health clinic, fearing that they will run into someone they know.
Male teens need to know that many family planning clinics are eager to
serve young men; female teens need to know that most family planning
clinics do not require a pelvic exam before prescribing birth control.
- Share information about emergency contraception (EC) and encourage teenage women to have EC at hand in case of an emergency. (Call 1-888-NOT-2-LATE to find an EC provider.)
- Talk about using condoms and hormonal methods of birth control. Using two methods at the same time allows young men and women to share the responsibility to be safe and healthy. Condoms are highly effective
at preventing HIV and gonorrhea and also lower the risk for other STIs.
They are also very effective at preventing pregnancy—compared to an 85
percent chance of experiencing pregnancy when a couple uses no method of
- Talk with your teen about “being swept away.” When interviewed
about why they did not use condoms or contraception, many young people
say, “I wasn’t planning it. It just happened. We got swept away and
didn’t use anything.” Make clear to your teen that this is not
okay. Say, “You must be prepared, or else you simply don’t have sex.
This is the mature way to act.” In the words of one wise teen, “using
condoms is just not that difficult. You either use condoms and birth
control, or you just don’t do it.”
- What do you do if you find condoms or birth control in your
teen’s room or pants pocket? Take a deep breath and remember that this
is evidence of your teen’s being responsible. Use this as an opportunity
to open up a conversation with your teen. This is one of those times
when you can share your feelings and values, support your teen in being
responsible, and talk together about intimacy, love, responsibility, and
- Don’t talk as though there is only one kind of sexual
intercourse. Teens aren’t sure what “having sex” means. Many today see
oral and/or anal sex as ways to avoid “having sex.” These teens often do
not realize that oral sex and anal sex actually are sexual intercourse and that each involves high risk for STIs.
- Make sure that your teen has at least one other adult to whom
she/he can go for help in an emergency. Give your teen permission to
confide in someone else, a person the teen can trust for guidance and
support. That other adult could be a relative, clergy person, teacher,
counselor, health provider, or friend. Just make sure that you and your
teen both know who the other adult is, rather than just assuming that
your teen has “someone” to whom he/she can go. No young person should go
through a difficult situation without help.
- Finally, remember that when parents have close and loving
relationships with each other, their relationship is a model for what
their teens will want someday. And, when parents express love and caring
to their children, they also teach them to love themselves. Then,
parents are raising young people who will be likely to use condoms and
effective contraception to protect themselves when, eventually, they
choose to have sex.