This is a vitally important topic, so no cute lead on this one: Kids need to know about sex from their parents before they have sex – duh!
Well, a recent study finds that parents are not talking soon enough, partly because kids are having sexual encounters at a younger age than in prior generations, and also because parents are in denial.
As a result, the birds-and-the-bees conversation occurs after, and not before, kids start experimenting sexually, possibly in risky ways, according to a study in the January issue of Pediatrics. In the study, researchers found “The Talk” about safe sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases often occurs after many adolescents are already having actual intercourse.
This revelation comes despite American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that health-care providers and parents talk to their kids about sex and sexuality early in life.
"Parents are a little behind the 8-ball. They underestimate their children's sexual knowledge and interest and behaviors," said Dr. Lawrence Friedman, director of adolescent medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"It's a hard subject for many parents to broach, but the level of sexual activity in many kids has moved up in terms of initiation. It's younger," added Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "Talking about it is very helpful in terms of disease prevention, unwanted pregnancy and even issues around relationships."
According to experts, this is a troublesome trend, as teens who have had a sex talk with their parents are more likely to delay their first sexual encounter, and to practice safe sex when they do become sexually active.
Although there were long-term suspicions that parents lagged behind their kids, previous studies had asked adults to remember when they first had sex and when their parents talked to them, said study author Megan Beckett, a social scientist with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
For this study, Beckett and her colleagues surveyed 141 middle-class and upper middle-class parents and their children, aged 13 to 17, in more of a real-time scenario. "We went back about four times over a year's period," Beckett said.
The study involved the families enrolling in the Talking Parents, Healthy Teens program, and should serve as a wake-up call for parents. The parents and children responded to a questionnaire covering 24-issues regarding sex and sexuality, including how pregnancy occurred, body changes during puberty, condom and birth control applications, as well as sexual identity and homosexuality.
Separately, parents and children were asked the first time they discussed each topic, which was then compared with the teens’ self-reports about engaging in three specific categories of sexual behavior i.e. hand-holding or kissing; genital touching or oral sex; and intercourse.
By study-end, over half the parents reported 14 of the 24-sex-related topics had not been discussed, by which time their adolescents had already begun genital touching or oral sex with partners.
Starting with questions about girls bodies and menstruation, the research team asked parents and children about kissing and handholding, birth control, refusing sex, oral sex and intercourse, all related to different developmental stages of the kids.
More than half of children had experienced genital touching before "The Talk" about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and condom use, the researchers found.
"More than 40 percent of adolescents are having intercourse before parents have talked to them about STD symptoms, condom use, choosing birth control and what to do if your partner refuses to use a condom," Beckett said. "That's a pretty large number."
Forty-two percent of girls said they had not discussed the effectiveness of birth control, while 40 percent had not talked it over with their parents on how to refuse sex before engaging in genital touching.
Nearly 70 percent of boys had not discussed condom use or other birth-control methods before having intercourse, with only half their parents saying they had not discussed the issues. About two-thirds of boys said they had not talked with a parent about how to use a condom before having intercourse. And conversations with boys almost always took place later than talks with girls.
"This is a flag to not put it off, and this is especially the case with boys," Beckett said.
Denial, naivety and any number of other emotions on the part of the parents may be playing into this trend, Friedman said.
"They reminisce that when they were in the seventh grade, they didn't do that kind of thing," he said.
"The fact of the matter is that this is 25 years later, and this is what is going on. You have to be knowledgeable and prepared to prepare children for when they become teenagers and have to confront sexual kinds of activities."
Other experts agree. "We live in an R-rated society, and our kids need our PG guidance," said Dr. Frank Biro, head of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "If you want to instill knowledge and values, then you need to be talking to your kids earlier, not later."
Here are some tips on when and how to talk to your kids:
— Figure that the age you think is appropriate is probably too old. "If parents think that they should broach the topic at X age, they should subtract two years and do it at that age instead," Friedman said.
— Talk to your physician and scour resources from the Internet, libraries and schools about how to broach the subject and what to say.
— Take the lead. "Don't expect your child to come and ask an important question about a topic that they're embarrassed about or that they don't know their parents would be willing to talk to them about," Friedman said. "This will also help gauge how knowledgeable their teenager or child is."
— After you've talked, "step back and ask your kids questions and pay attention to what they're interested in," Hilfer said.
— Make sure your conversation is developmentally appropriate to the child, Biro said. Talking about fellatio with a 6-year-old is probably not appropriate. Talking about boys liking girls and handholding would be for kids 8 or 9 years or possibly even 6 years old. "If you haven't talked to your kids by the time they're 12, you need to get on the stick," said Hilfer.
— Make sure that kids understand the risks of even casual experimentation. AIDS, STD’s and unwanted pregnancies can happen even if the kids do not have full-on intercourse.
— Make sure kids know how to say "no," that it's OK to refuse any sexual suggestion, and that they are not uncool to do so.
— Swallow your unease. Your embarrassment is nothing compared to your kid getting pregnant or AIDS!
— Be senstive to your kids about feelings of shame. Make sure they understand that sexual feelings are normal and natural, and that you still have them.
— Make sure that kids know they can count on you if they get into ANY kind of trouble, without judgment or getting a lecture.
— LISTEN TO YOUR KIDS! Pretty basic, but may be the most important tips that adults can ignore. They understand they need to talk, but the listening — not so much.
In addition, it is important for all parents to know the correct terms and the anatomy of both genders. It is unbelievable, but it has been my experience that many adults have the same knowledge about sex as adolescents – they have not updated their own information in decades! Only give your kids correct information!
I also believe that no discussion about sex can omit a conversation about masturbation. Sexual impulses are natural, and masturbation is a safe-sex way to release those feelings in private, and for teens to learn about, and accept, their bodies.
Discussion about sexual identity has to be part of any conversation with kids. Believe me, kids will hear about homosexuality from other kids, and often that information is ugly and destructive. If children have begun to believe they are not heterosexual, the feelings of shame begin very, very early. Parents have to be conscious of what their kids are feeling, and observant, even if what you see is not something you may approve of, or want for them.
Unconditional love begins when parents embrace their children for who they are, including the sexuality, and realize that a lot of the rules have changed. Arm your kids with information on how to keep safe, as well as explaining the emotions that occur with even casual sexual contact.
Unwanted pregnancies, AIDS and other STD’s are not the only sexual minefields all kids have to cross. Peer pressure, even rape; poor body image; sexual identity; and even broken hearts are just some of the others. Whew! I am often glad that I do not have young children in this day and age.
— The Curator