Published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD).
As we talk about the role we all play in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), let’s state the obvious: Parents are important. We know that, and you know that. For many young people, parents are their primary sexual health educators. Research shows that youth want to hear from their parents about sex and relationships. However, we know this topic can be hard to discuss. In our work, we have heard many parents say they did not have good role models to show how these conversations can happen. Parents may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, and their children are likely to feel the same. The good news is that each parent can be a good role model, regardless of his or her level of experience.
We know parents are nervous. They’re afraid that they don’t have the right answers to tricky questions like “When did you first have sex?” or “What is sex?” I’ll (Becky) never forget overhearing the first of many “birds and bees” talks that my sister and brother-in-law had with their son. He was about to start Family Life Education in school, so they wanted to prep him for what was to come. As I stood in the kitchen and listened to them talk about anatomy and how babies are made, I’ll never forget my nephew’s reaction: “Eww, that’s gross.” The best was when he connected the dots between his younger sister and how she came to be: “That means you had sex at least once after me. That’s so gross.” Just thinking about it makes me chuckle. But it also makes me really proud that my sister and brother-in-law opened the door to future conversations about sex and relationships, even though they were just as nervous as other parents. This was important because sex ed isn’t just one conversation; it’s a conversation that needs to happen over and over.
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Even though many of the initial conversations between parents and their children concentrate on anatomy and puberty, future conversations should focus on unplanned pregnancy and STD prevention. Planting the seeds early with basic sexual health information will open the door to more complex discussions around decision making, relationships, negotiating condom use, birth control, and how to prevent STDs.
The recent Michigan Talk Early Talk Often (TETO) conference brought together more than 100 parents from across the state to gain knowledge and skills about raising a sexually healthy adolescent. The attendees said loud and clear that they want to continue to be informed about issues related to talking about sexual health with children and adolescents.
Some parents may not have all the facts or knowledge about sexual health topics, and information on these topics can change quickly. One parent who attended the conference commented in a follow-up email, “I’m relieved there’s accessible information available on preventing teen pregnancy. At the TETO parent conference though, I learned that STDs are on the rise in young people, which doesn’t seem to be as talked about. That concerns me, especially after hearing that some of the most common STDs either don’t have any immediate symptoms or may have symptoms that disappear but the STD is still there. Yikes! As a parent of two teens (15 and 17) that was important to know and then share with my daughters.”
Another parent remarked that parents often miss an important topic: STDs. “STD prevention is sadly not getting the attention from parents it deserves. Some parents fail to see it as something to communicate with their kids about. Some may think it will be covered in school or that they do not have the expertise themselves to properly inform their children. Even if parents do not have all of the detailed information about every STD, it is vital for them to communicate with their children about STDs. Talking about the different types of STDs and the different protection methods is part of our ‘protection’ job. We should not fall into the trap of using STD risks (or pictures) as a way to scare our children, in the hope it may prevent them from even having intimate relationships. Fear is not a good teacher. Why not go for the best teaching methods: Many conversations and putting know-how into practice,” said the parent of a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old.
I’m sure most people would agree that parents play a role in STD prevention. And there are resources to help parents who may struggle with how to begin the conversation and how to respond to questions that make them nervous. There are organizations to support parents and provide education on sexual health topics that are often changing and may be very different from when they grew up.
There’s no one way to have a sex education conversation with your children, but taking the time to sit down with them and begin the conversation is a step in the right direction. Don’t worry about how many times you stumble or say the wrong thing. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to a question. Just tell them you don’t know and you’ll find the answer. No matter what (and even if they don’t act like it) your child will greatly appreciate the time and effort it took from you to discuss an often overlooked but important topic.
For more information on how to talk to children/teens about sex, visit these parent resources: