Parents' Sex Talk with Kids: Too Little, Too Late

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The sex talk is never easy. It's not comfortable for anyone involved — parents are afraid of it, children are mortified by it — which is probably why the talk so often comes after the fact. In the latest study on parent-child talks about sex and sexuality, researchers found that more than 40% of adolescents had had intercourse before talking to their parents about safe sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases.

That trend is troublesome, say experts, since teens who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay their first sexual encounter and to practice safe sex when they do become sexually active. And, ironically, despite their apparent dread, kids really want to learn about sex from their parents, according to study after study on the topic.

"The results didn't surprise me," says Dr. Mark Schuster, one of the authors of the new study, published in Pediatrics, and chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston. "But there's something about having actual data that serves as a wake-up call to parents who are not talking to their kids about very important issues until later than we think would be best."

The study involved 141 families enrolled in the Talking Parents, Healthy Teens program, organized by the University of California Los Angeles/Rand Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and overseen by Schuster. Parents and their children, aged 13 to 17, responded to questions about 24 issues regarding sex and sexuality, including how women become pregnant, body changes that occur during puberty, how to use condoms and birth control, as well as issues around homosexuality.

Researchers asked both parents and their children, separately, when they had first discussed each topic, and compared that information to teens' self-reports about their engagement in three specific categories of sexual behavior — hand-holding or kissing; genital touching or oral sex; and intercourse. Families were surveyed four times, once at the beginning of the study, then again at three, six and 12 months.

By the end of the study, more than half of the parents reported that they had not discussed 14 of the 24 sex-related topics by the time their adolescents had begun genital touching or oral sex with partners. Forty-two percent of girls reported that they had not discussed the effectiveness of birth control and 40% admitted they had not talked with their parents about how to refuse sex before engaging in genital touching. Nearly 70% of boys said they had not discussed how to use a condom or other birth-control methods with their parents before having intercourse. Yet only half of the boys' parents, by contrast, said they had not discussed condom use or birth control with their sons.

That difference highlights a primary problem in the parent-child dialogue about sex. "A lot of parents think they had a conversation, and the kids don't remember it at all," says Dr. Karen Soren, director of adolescent medicine at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital. "Parents sometimes say things more vaguely because they are uncomfortable and they think they've addressed something, but the kids don't hear the topic at all."

It's incredibly difficult to broach the topic of sex, admits Soren, who has three children of her own. "Your kids look at you like you're crazy, and you feel like you want to run," she says. "But it's important because we know good parent-child interaction gives kids better resiliency later on in life."

As the latest study shows, parental talks about sex and sexuality need to occur much earlier than they do, but that doesn't necessarily mean that parents have only one shot at getting it right. To make things easier, and to take some of the pressure off the situation, say experts, parents should think about sex talks as an ongoing dialogue, rather than one uncomfortable discussion that they must cross off their list. And they should keep in mind that they've probably internalized the same discomfort and avoidance that their own parents displayed in talking about sex — but sex talks needn't be so fraught. Experts also say that parents should discuss certain issues with their children at age-appropriate times, and that the discussion should evolve as children mature. "A 12-year-old will look at sex very differently than a 15- or an 18-year-old," says Soren. "For kids between 10 and 13, the idea of sex grosses them out. So you're probably not going to tell a 13-year-old necessarily all about different methods of birth control."

Instead, the conversations should focus on what the child is capable of absorbing, and what the child asks about. Parents should also take advantage of every excuse to broach the difficult subject — a mention of sex or sexuality on a TV show, a pregnancy in the family, sex-education classes in school or a visit to the doctor around the time of puberty. "If you just get over the hurdle of starting, then once the conversation gets going, you often find it's easier than expected," says Schuster. "So use any excuse you want, but just get over the initial hurdle and start talking to your kids, because it's really important."