How Parents Can Help Teens Delay Sex
March is "National Talk to Your Teen About Sex Month." While we think every month should have this title, it's a good excuse to suggest a particular topic that your family could a focus on this month: helping your teen delay sex! Often in our Let's Be Honest parent education workshops, parents ask us about ways to help their teens delay having sex. Part of what makes comprehensive sexuality education successful is helping our youth understand the benefits of abstinence[i].
Clear, direct messages from parents about the importance of delaying sex are vital for young people. In one national study of adolescents in grades 7-12, perceived parental disapproval of adolescent sex was strongly related to teenagers' remaining abstinent. An even stronger correlation occurred between delay of first sex and the teens' sense of a strong parent and family connection - believing that their parents loved and cared for them[ii]. Eight in ten teens (80%) say that it would be much easier for them to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents[iii]. In fact, teens who are close to their parents are more likely to postpone sexual intercourse, have fewer sexual partners, and use contraception consistently if they do have intercourse than young people who are not as close to their parents.
It's helpful to understand and keep in mind the social reasons teens choose to have sex or choose to wait. Research shows that most teens make decisions based on short-term social reasons. Here are seven common reasons teenagers give for having sex and suggestions for how parents might choose to respond in ongoing conversations with their adolescents. It is a parent's right and responsibility to help their children make healthier, safer and better-informed decisions related to sexuality. March is a good month to start!
1. "I'll feel more grown up." Many teens don't like to feel that anyone has control over their lives. As they physically mature and experience increased independence, some teens feel they're ready for sexual intercourse and think that having it will make them even more mature and independent. Possible parent response: "I can understand you wanting to feel more grown up. What are some ways that you can feel grown up without having sex?"
2. "I know I would enjoy sex." Adolescence is a developmental stage that may be full of emotional ups and downs, and seeking out peers and activities that make them feel good is not unusual. Teens have a hard time weighing the short-term benefits - physical pleasure or emotional satisfaction - against the possible, and much more serious, consequences such as sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. Possible parent response: "I know you think it might feel good to have sex. But there are so many other ways to feel good and be close to someone without taking the risk of having sex."
3. "It's okay if I have sex because everybody is doing it." Kids have a hard time estimating numbers, especially about people. If we ask them how many kids go to their school, their estimates may be very different than the real number. Similarly, teens often think that many more of them are sexually active than they actually are. Possible parent response: "Less than half of all high school students have had sexual intercourse. It is perfectly normal to wait. The fact that everybody may be talking about it doesn't mean that everybody is 'doing it.'"
4. "I believe in having sex if I truly love the other person." Or, "Having sex is the best way to show my partner how much I care." Many teens believe that they will lose their partner if they don't have sex. Still others fear that they need to have sex to reassure their partner of their affection. Teens may not consider other ways of sharing affection besides sexual intercourse. Possible parent response: "Sex can be a special way of sharing love with someone. But you should be loved whether or not you have sex. Let's think of other ways of sharing love without having sex."
5. "I know people who had sex at a young age, why can't I?" Or, "You had sex at a young age - I can handle the consequences just like you did." Because their brains aren't fully developed, chances are teens can't realistically think through all the potential risks that having sex poses for themselves and their families. They might not understand the challenges that result from teenage parenting such as financial hardship, family and emotional stress, implications for education, and long-term health problems. We have to help them do that. Possible parent response: "It's true. I did have sexual intercourse as a teen, so you might find it confusing for me to ask you to wait. But I want to tell you that I really wished I waited longer. I had to go through a lot because of it."
6. "If I have sex, I'll know what it's like, and I won't be curious anymore." For many young teens, curiosity plays a large role in seeking instant gratification. Also, teens are faced with an onslaught of references to sexual activity through the media, often without mention of values messages, accurate factual information, or real consequences. Possible parent response: "I can understand why you might be curious, but curiosity is not a good reason to have sex. In our family, sexual activity is a really important decision and I'd like us to talk about that more. When do you think someone knows if they are ready to have sex?"
7. "Other people will like me more if I have sex." Many young teens believe that they will be more popular with their peers and potential partners if they have sex. Because teens tend to be all about the present, they may not consider the possible future social and other consequences. Possible parent response: "True friends will support your decision not to have sex. True friends don't care whether or not you have had sex. A good friendship goes beyond this. It may seem like sex is a way to become popular, but many kids find that isn't true."
Additional Resources to Help Parents Navigate "National Talk to Your Teen About Sex Month" - and Beyond!
* Advocates for Youth -
* Healthy Teen Network - http://healthyteennetworkblog.org/2012/01/04/5-ways-to-become-an-approachable-parent-positive-parenting-for-teen-sexual-health/
* The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/parents
[i] 2012 Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Dr. Vanessa Cullins
[ii] National Institute of Health, Longitudinal influences of friends and parents upon unprotected vaginal intercourse in adolescents, Catherine Kim, Acham Gebremariam, Theodore J. Iwashyna, Vanessa K. Dalton, and Joyce M. Lee
[iii] National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, With One Voice, 2012.
Visit our website for helpful tips, information about workshops, and much more. Don't miss an opportunity to be the primary sexuality educator for your children.
Need help? Call our Parent Education Team at (617) 616-1658.
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Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts