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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


The Big Talk


September 14, 2011

Sexual And Reproductive Health
23414
Teen Topics
The Big Talk
The Big Talk
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Is it time for the big talk? Postponing the inevitable dialogue about sex won't help your children. Here's how to open the discussion.
285755
InteliHealth
2011-09-14
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InteliHealth
2014-09-03

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The Big Talk
 

When should you talk to your children about sex and what is the best approach?

By Matthew Hoffman

It may be easy for some parents to find excuses for postponing the "big talk" about sex with their children. Some don't want to sound as if they're condoning premarital sex. Others wait for their children to bring up the topic. And many are simply uncomfortable talking about sex because their parents never discussed sex with them.

In this age when sexual images seem to be everywhere, children and teenagers want to know more about sex, but not just because they are planning to become sexually active.

Teenagers are also caught up in some frightening trends. Sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers are on the rise. And although the teen pregnancy rate has dropped, about 750,000 teens get pregnant each year.

Postponing the talk won't keep your children away from sex. When they don't hear about sex from their parents, teenagers get information from other, often unreliable sources, including friends, magazines, advertising, television, the Internet and movies. Having the right information can help teens understand the risks, grapple with the emotional and physical changes of puberty and deal with peer pressure.

Sex Is Just Part Of The Discussion

Don't think about the big talk as a one-time deal. Experts recommend that parents talk to their children about sex long before the teenage years and not in a single conversation, but by working it into the natural flow of daily conversation. Be sure to include all of the emotional and social issues that surround sex.

Remember: The things that happen before a teenager has sexual relations are far more important than the sex itself. These include dating and relationships, caring for other people, and developing moral values. Parents can help teenagers understand that intercourse is just one part of a vast experience that makes up human sexuality.

Talking just about sex disregards the entire social process. Teenagers need to be thinking about why they want to participate in certain types of behavior or how to respond when their partners are pressuring them to have sex.

What To Say When

Studies have shown that children who feel they can talk to their parents about sex are less likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior than those whose parents keep silent. The more information you give your children about dating and sexual behavior, the better equipped they'll be to make informed decisions. Here are the top seven things you can do to reduce embarrassment and ensure your children get all the information they need:

  • Talk early and often.If you wait until your children are already dating to discuss sex, nothing you say is likely to have much of an impact. Worse, it may be too late. It's not uncommon for girls to start having sexual intercourse at age 14; boys may start even earlier. It's critical to talk about sex and relationships before your children begin to explore this difficult territory on their own.
  • Be honest and direct.Forget the birds-and-the-bees stuff. Answer your children's questions honestly and in as much detail as you feel is appropriate for their age and maturity level. If there's something you'd rather not discuss, tell them so. They need to feel confident that they can come to you for honest answers.
  • Stay engaged in their lives. It's easiest to talk about sex when it's a natural part of daily conversation. Talk to your children about what they are doing at school, their friends and what they do when they go out. Talking about their lives will provide a lot of openings for frank discussions.
  • Discuss their friends.It's easier for kids to talk about their friends than about themselves. You'll learn a lot about what your children are thinking just by listening to the things they tell you about their friends.
  • Focus on dating. Even parents who are comfortable discussing sex often forget to ask about the dating game. But that's an area of tremendous concern for teenagers. It's during dates that teenagers face their biggest challenges and uncertainties about future relationships and sexual behavior. They need to understand that sex is just one part — and not the most important part — of having a caring relationship.
  • Work on their self-confidence. It's extremely common for teenagers to start having sex to please someone else and validate their self-worth. Keeping them busy with constructive activities, such as athletics, music or church groups, will help them understand that they don't need the approval of others just to have a good time or to feel good about themselves. Help them understand that having sex for those reasons can seriously damage their sense of self.
  • Keep them safe. The issue of when (or whether) to talk to teenagers about safe sexual practices is an intensely personal one. Whether you decide to share information about birth control or disease prevention, you need to help your children understand that sexual behavior is never risk-free. One-fifth of all teenage pregnancies occur within the first month of the first sexual encounter. Half occur within the first six months.

Teenagers have to understand what the risks really are. Two-thirds of teen moms never finish high school. Teen parents who get married are more likely to get divorced, and teenage moms are more likely to go on welfare. The more accurate information you give teenagers, the better able they'll be to make informed decisions.

Remember, start by having a healthy relationship with your child. Include this discussion, along with others. Set family expectations and be consistent. Be "proactive" and offer accurate information.

 

 

 

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