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Talk to your children about sex

Posted: March 14, 2008 2:37 a.m.
Updated: May 15, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Sex - in some households, it's a dirty word and in some households, it means open communication. The month of March is designated nationally as "Talk to Your Teen About Sex Month." And while I believe that we should be talking to our teens on a daily basis about a number issues, I am grateful that the month of March has been established to talk to your teens about sex. Hopefully, this will inspire you to take the time to have an open and frank discussion with your teen about sex.

While the sex talk is important to the health and welfare of your teen, I believe the conversation needs to start early, and we have teachable moments with our children on a daily basis. Some parents may question the appropriateness of talking about such sensitive topics with young children. You may be one of them. However, our kids already learn about these issues from the Internet, television, movies, magazines, music and school friends. If we don't talk with them early and often - and answer their questions - they'll get their facts from someone else. You will have missed an important opportunity to offer information that's not only accurate, but also in sync with your own personal values and moral principles.

The stats
Many of you would be shocked to know that 10 percent of all 13-year olds have had sexual intercourse. Fifty percent of all teenagers have had sex by the time they leave high school and 50 percent of all teens believe that oral sex is not sex.

The sex talk used to be about the birds and the bees and reproduction.

Then it evolved to sex out of wedlock and teen pregnancies. Now we talk about teen pregnancies, as well as HIV/AIDS. SDTs (sexually transmitted diseases) are at epidemic proportions. When it comes to viral STDs, there is no cure. While bacterial STDs can be cured with antibiotics, they can and often leave irreversible scars, which can lead to infertility.

Sexual abstinence shouldn't be left out of the equation either.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and other medical sources, almost four million teenagers contract an STD each year - that's about one teen every eight seconds. Teens make up about one-quarter of the 12 million STD cases reported annually. Eighty percent of those infected are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms. Teen STDs are often more severe and harder to treat.

Two-thirds of bacterial diseases occur in people under the age of 25.

There is no immunity to STDs. They can be contracted over and over again. In a single act of unprotected sex with an infected partner, a teenage woman has a 30 percent risk of getting genital herpes and a 50 percent chance of contacting gonorrhea.

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States, and may be one of the most dangerous STDs among women today. An estimated one in four sexually active teens have chlamydia.

Seventy-five percent of infected women, and 50 percent of infected men have no symptoms. The number one risk factor for cervical cancer is early sexual activity, the second is multiple sex partners. Human papilloma virus (HPV) is likely the most common STD among young, sexually-active populations.

One in six sexually active teens contract HPV, which can cause pain, genital warts and cancer. Half of all sexually active young women end up contracting HPV - 20 percent eventually recover, but 80 percent are afflicted the rest of their lives.

Sounds frightening, doesn't it? Are you still convinced sex is a teenage discussion?

You get the first word
Kids are hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues at increasingly early ages, Additionally, medical research and public health data tells us that when young children want information, advice and guidance, they turn to their parents first. Once they reach the teenage years, they tend to depend more on friends, the media and other outsiders for their information. As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to talk with your child about these issues first, before anyone else can confuse your child with incorrect information or explanations that lack the sense of values you want to instill. You need to take advantage of this "window of opportunity," the teachable moment, with young children and talk with them earlier and more often.

Young children want their parents to discuss difficult subjects with them. However, our kids will look to us for answers only if they feel we will be open to their questions. It's up to us to create the kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questions - on any subject - freely and without fear of consequence.

How do you create such an atmosphere? By being encouraging, supportive and positive. For example, if your child asks, "How many people have AIDS?" try not to answer with, "I don't know. Please just finish your lunch." No matter how busy you are, respond with something like, "That's an interesting question, but I'm not sure. Let's go look it up." Don't worry that if your children learn that you don't know everything, they won't look up to you. Kids accept, "I don't know," and "let's go find out," and they are better responses than any inaccurate or misleading answers you may be tempted to offer.

You don't need to answer all of your children's questions immediately.

If your 10-year-old asks, "Mom, what's a condom?" while you're negotiating a tricky turn in rush-hour traffic, it's perfectly okay for you to say something like, "That's an important question. But with all this traffic, I can't explain right now. Let's talk later, after dinner." And make sure you do.

Whatever their ages all children deserve honest answers and explanations. It's what strengthens a child's ability to trust. When we don't provide a straightforward answer, kids make up their own fantasy explanations, which can be more frightening than any real, honest response we can offer.

While we may not want or need to share all the details of a particular situation or issue with our child, try not to leave any big gaps either. When we do, children tend to fill in the blanks themselves, which can generate a good deal of confusion and concern.

Since most young children can only take in small bits of information at any one time. They won't learn all they need to know about a particular topic from a single discussion. That's why it's important to let a little time pass, then ask the child to tell you what he or she remembers about your conversation. This will help you correct any misconceptions and fill in missing facts.

Finally, in an effort to absorb all they want to know, children often ask questions again and again over time - which can test any parent's nerves. But such repetition is perfectly normal, so be prepared and tolerant.

I can't reinforce enough the importance of trying to talk about tough issues with your kids before they become teens.

There isn't always time to sit down for a long talk and by the time your kids are teens, discussions about today's toughest issues are often just categorized as another lecture from mom and dad.

Yes, it's "Talk to Your Teen About Sex Month." The sex discussion is an important discussion to have, again, again, and again. Remember parental involvement and parental guidance helps us help our kids make better decisions.

If we are adult enough to have children, we need to be adult enough to have the important conversations, no matter how tough or scary they might be.

Cary Quashen is a high-risk teen counselor, a certified addiction specialist, the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Programs and the ACTION Family Counseling Centers. Quashen may be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION Hotline number is 1-800-FOR TEENs. ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group meetings meet at Saugus High School, Tuesday evenings at 7:00 p.m. in the Q Building on the west end of the campus. Saugus High School is located at 21900 Centurion Way, Saugus.


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