Parents hoping for an excuse to delay the big “sex talk” are out of luck. A new study has found that parents actually need to initiate those conversations even sooner. According to the researchers, more than 40 percent of children have had intercourse before any discussion with their parents about sexually transmitted diseases, condom use, how to choose birth control or what to do if a partner refuses to use a condom, says Dr. Megan Beckett, a behavioral and social scientist for the Rand Corporation and lead author on the study. As a rule of thumb, Beckett suggests parents initiate these conversations at least a few years before they think they need to happen. Because younger children tend to be less self-conscious asking about sex than older children, answer these early questions factually and directly to open up the lines of communication for the future, Beckett says.
Does the idea of talking about sex with your kids make you break out in a sweat? Relax – we have some tips to help you start the conversation.
- Don’t play word games. From the time your child starts school, talk to them about the correct names for body parts and how boy and girl bodies are different.
- Use your surroundings to prompt discussions, such as television shows or music lyrics. Ask your child, “What do you think about what that character did? What would you do in that situation?”
- Establish some ground rules early-before children reach puberty-and talk about why these rules reinforce your values and keep them safe.
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As children get older, bring up the topic regularly, as you would with any other aspect of their lives, like school or friendships. “As a parent knows, your child doesn’t always hear you,” she says. “If you talk to them one time, the chances of getting across what you want to say are not as high as you might hope.” One way to begin the conversations is by picking up on something you saw together on TV and discussing how they might handle the same situation. If you’re feeling uneasy, Beckett says reading up can help. When parents are more confident with their own information base, it can make the conversation a bit easier. “Make sure they’re comfortable coming to you rather than going to friends who may not be as knowledgeable or who may not have the same opinions as you,” Beckett says. Even if parents don’t think their children are ready to have sex, these conversations are still important in case they make different decisions, Beckett says. And having that talk isn’t the same thing as giving your child a green light on having sex. “There’s evidence to suggest that teens who have talked to their parents openly and comfortably about sex are more likely to delay their age of first intercourse,” she says. “When they do become sexually active, they’re more likely to use a condom. There’s no downside.”