The High School Years
Though we have separated this resource into sections by age, this is far from a static breakdown. All children are different and it’s most important to educate them based on their own personal growth. Your children may ask questions, run into sexual or social problems or may become sexually active earlier or later that you expect, so we welcome you to skip ahead or go back to sections to find the relevant advice. We all learn and grown at our own rate and so these designations are meant to be guidelines, not rules.
Your child will become more and more entrenched in their academic and social lives as they move through high school. This often means they don't feel like their parents can understand or educate them anymore. The days of curious questioning may be over. Now it's your turn to do the asking. Ask your child questions both casual and more serious. Ask about crushes and their friends. Ask if they are dating or what they are hearing about sex in school. If you feel that it's necessary, sometimes it's easier just to flat-out ask your child if they are sexually active. Remember to never accuse or sound judgmental; make sure they know that you simply care for their health. If you are uncomfortable try connecting it to another question, like one about condoms of doctor's appointments. For example, "Your pediatrician said you should make a gynecologist appointment once you become sexually active, do you need one?" If they totally shut down at these questions, don't pry. Try again later or in another type of conversation.
As your teen moves into their high school years discussions about sex often move from the abstract and educational to the concrete and problem-solving. Now is the time to talk about the very real, nitty-gritty details of being a sexual person. The most important part of this is safer sex. Only 25% of the sexually active population in America are teenagers and young adults, but almost half of all STI diagnoses are in this age group (1). Try making a checklist with your child of the things they think they need before they become sexually active. Have them make their list, then make yours and compare. It might include anything from condoms to a partner who loves them to a gynecological appointment. Talk about how they can achieve these things in order to have safer sex. Even if they are already sexually active, these lists can help pinpoint what they may need help with.
Make safer sex resources available. If you feel comfortable giving condoms or dental dams to your child, do so. If you know or suspect they are having sex, try asking them what methods of safer sex they use. Remind them of statistics like 1 out of 5 adolescents and adults have a genital Herpes infection (2). Ask them what steps they are taking to be responsible about their sexual behavior. If you feel comfortable sharing, maybe tell them what birth control methods you and your partners have used and what you thought of them.
Choosing Birth Control
Remember that your child doesn't need your permission to buy condoms, go on the pill or use a diaphragm. Though they can do this on their own, it will benefit you and your child to try and be a part of this process. Do research. This is extraordinarily important. Read up on every method of birth control, try to have your child do the same and learn the following things:
- What they do.
- How to use them.
- How they protect against pregnancy.
- How they protect against STIs.
- What are the possible side effects.
Once you have educated yourself, you can talk to your child about what type of birth control is right for their situation or future situations. If you have a son, this conversation might seem pointless, but it is far from that. While males do only have two choices for birth control (condoms or vasectomy), it is extremely important that they understand the methods their partners are using and how it keeps them and their partner safe.
When choosing a method with your child the following questions can help make a decision. Are they at risk for STIs? The answer to this is usually yes. Unless they are in a mutually monogamous (where both partners only have sexual contact with each other), long-term relationship where both partners have been tested for STIs and HIV, they should be using condoms. Period. The pill may be the most common method of contraception among teens and young adults (3) and they are useful as a back-up method, but for a large portion of the population condoms should be considered a necessity. Next think about what kind of relationship they are in? Are they having sexual contact exclusively with each other or do they see other people? Again, condoms are usually fine for more casual relationships, but if it lasts longer, your child might feel more comfortable with a back-up method. Talk about this. What health conditions do they have? Are they willing to monitor their health and body closely? Hormonal birth control is extraordinarily popular but can also have many side effects ranging from the minor (decrease in sex drive, mood swings ) to the extremely dangerous (blood clots, stroke). If they choose this method they must be responsible enough to follow the method's procedure exactly and to keep a close eye on any changes in their health. Talk to your doctor or do research on how your child's health might influence their use of hormonal birth control and if this does become an option make sure your child knows all the possible side effects and what the warning signs for these side effects are. Non-hormonal copper IUDs (intra-uterine devices) are gaining popularity among young women, but if an STI is contracted IUDs can make the infection worse, so only individuals with little to no risk of STIs should use IUDs (and in high school, these situations are rather rare).
Talk with your child about the importance of getting tested for STIs and HIV. You can even take them to get tested at a doctor's office, hospital or clinic, even if you just want to see what it is like. Ask if any of their friends have ever gotten tested and what their experiences were like. Testing can save lives by identifying STIs early, which makes them easier to treat. Remember that many STIs have no symptoms so many people with STIs don't even know they have them. With 1-1.2 million individuals in the United States living with HIV (4), testing is a crucial part of safer sex. Some teenagers, and adults too, avoid getting tested because they are afraid of a positive result. Address these issues, but stress that knowledge is their greatest weapon in keeping themselves healthy. Many teens who get tested go alone or with peers and are too embarrassed to ask for emotional support from parents. If you are open with your child about testing, you can be an valuable source of comfort when they do think about getting tested.
Always be sure to ask and answer the question "Why?" This little word can make a huge difference in conversations and even arguments you might have with your child about sex.
Whenever you are informing your children of value you hold or rule you have made about sex, always include an explanation of why in your discussion. Take some time by yourself to think about your reasons and convey them to your child. This will not only help them to understand where you are coming from, but will afford them the respect that "Because I said so" doesn't. Explaining "why" can help a discussion become more rational. If you don't want your child going to a co-ed sleepover, don't just forbid them, but explain that you are worried that alcohol might be offered and he might make decisions that he regrets. Now instead of your child yelling about how unfair you are, they can hopefully address your real concerns. Maybe he will allow you to call the parents chaperoning the party to alleviate your fears or maybe it will inspire a conversation about his thoughts on substance abuse.
Also make sure to always ask your children "Why?" It not only forces them to examine their reasoning, helping them become more self aware, but can also give you insight into their thought process. Say your daughter wants to go on birth control pills and you are worried she will stop using condoms if she does. Don't outright forbid her right away. Instead ask her "Why do you want to start using birth control pills?" She might have a perfectly rational answer or she might not be able to answer and will just tell you that all her friends are using them. By asking why, this fight about birth control can turn into a more open conversation about peer pressure, the pros and cons of birth control and STI transmission. Maybe it will make your child reconsider their reasons for their actions or help them learn something new. Either way, "why" can go a long way.
Don't Buy The Hype
From daytime talk shows to national newspapers, stories about young people and sex are everywhere. We rabidly devour information about who is doing what when, how and with whom. Sex does sell so be wary of what you read in the media about sexual trends. Get your information from reputable sources and steer clear of exaggerations. Starting a discussion about sex with your child by referencing the latest sex craze you heard about on the evening news is not the best way to go about it. These stores (like rainbow parties or snapping colored plastic bracelets) are almost always blown out of proportion and usually simply not true for the vast majority of kids. Focusing on this hype will at best make you seem out of touch to your kids ("Geez Dad, no one actually does that! You don't know anything about me!") or at worst could scare your child. If they have no sexual experience, these stories can be intimidating and pressure inducing. Chances are your child is not and never will attend a "rainbow party", so why focus on exaggerated news reports when you can talk about things they probably have and will encounter like crushes and kissing and buying condoms?
Doctors can be a wealth of information for you and your child. Talk to your child about their doctor. Make sure they feel comfortable with them, find them friendly and feel comfortable asking them questions. If they don't, look into finding a new doctor. Remind your child that nothing they ask or tell their doctor can be told to you or anyone else. Inform your child that their doctor can usually give them STI testing and often free condoms.
Call you child's doctor and talk to them about any worries or questions they may have. Tell them that your child may ask for an STI test or condoms and make sure they offer these services at their office. Ask them for recommendations of resources or if they have any professional advice. Remember that doctors cannot legally give you information on what your child asks them about, so don't try to ask about their sexual behavior. These practices allow your child security and privacy with their doctors and that should never be violated.
Remember that girls should have their first pelvic exam by a gynecologist either once they turn 18 or after they become sexually active, whichever comes first. This can even be a way of opening up conversation or for them to indirectly tell you they are sexually active. Make sure they know that first sex means a trip to the gynecologist, so that they are able to ask you to make an appointment when they need one. Pelvic exams shouldn't hurt and you or your doctor can give your daughter tips on relaxing, such as asking the doctor questions, breathing slowly and deeply and doing her own research on what it feels like.
1. Weinstock, H. Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000 . Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health Vol. 36. 2004
2. Center for Disease Control. www.cdc.gov
3. Guttmacher Institute. Contraceptive Use. 2005. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_contr_use.html
4. Guttmacher Institute. Facts on Sexually Transmitted Infections in the United States. 2005. www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_sti.html