June 16, 2011
Parents should begin talking about sexual health matters with their children from an early age, especially when they ask questions, experts say.
About 49 percent of 12th-graders are sexually active, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP), citing the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. However, the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found 33 percent of female teens received no instruction about contraception before they first had sex.
"Parents should disabuse themselves of this notion that it is a one-time talk," said Bill Albert, chief program officer for NCPTUP. "It is and should be an 18-year conversation."
The conversations should be tailored to the child's age, graduating from discussions about anatomy to middle-school topics about acting respectfully toward peers, said Leslie Montgomery, director of education at Planned Parenthood of Indiana.
"If your child does come to you and asks a question, the most important thing at that point is to avoid having that shocked expression on your face, and answer in a matter-of-fact tone," Montgomery said.
Parents' influence over children's decisions about sex is greater than that of the youths' peers, Albert said. Children can accept, "Please delay having sex; but if you do have sex, use contraception,'" he said.
Parents who believe teens should save sex for marriage should share and foster those values early, noting that contraception reduces -- not eliminates -- risks, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
"What they need to do is give their young person enough tools to be safe," said Dr. J. Dennis Fortenberry, pediatrics professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and an adolescent-medicine specialist.
"We need to treat sex as something different than drugs, alcohol, and other risk behaviors," said Dr. Margaret Blythe, adolescent-medicine specialist at Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana. "It is a part of our lives, and it should be a healthy part."