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Sexual health is one of the most important conversations you can have with your teen. Nervous? Don’t be. The key is to keep it honest and factual. The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world. In addition, it has the highest rate of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV. Too much information isn’t the problem. The problem is too little. You can help protect your teen by giving them practical, fact-based information, and by keeping the lines of communication open and judgment free.
Teaching kids about nutrition doesn’t encourage them to gorge on junk food. And teaching teens about sexuality and sexual health doesn’t encourage them to go out and have sex. It’s time to trust that your teen has learned the values your family has taught them. And it’s time to give them the information they’ll need to make sound adult decisions when the occasion arises.
Where To Start
Ideally, sex, sexuality, and sexual health have been ongoing age-appropriate conversations from childhood. At different ages, you discussed different things. Small children learned the parts of the body and what they do. Older children learned the difference between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” touch. Eventually, when you and your children were ready, you taught them where babies come from. Now that your teen has reached sexual maturity, it’s time to teach them how to keep themselves safe and healthy. But how?
First, we’ll start with the basics: the reproductive organs and how they work. Next, we’ll talk about pregnancy and how to prevent it. We’ll also talk about sexually transmitted diseases, and different ways to avoid them. Then we’ll discuss how drugs and alcohol can affect a person’s judgment, especially when it comes to sex. Finally, we’ll give you some resources to help you get the right information to your teen before she or he needs it.
Sexual Health Step 1: The Basics
Start with basic biology: the male reproductive system and the female reproductive system. Understanding one’s body is the first step toward taking control of it.
The Male Reproductive System
The male reproductive system includes:
- The testicles: The testicles (balls) produce and store sperm.
- The duct system: Transports semen (fluid containing sperm) from the testicles to the penis.
- The penis: Delivers semen into the female’s vaginal canal
The Female Reproduction System
The female reproduction system includes:
- The vagina: This is a muscular tube that leads from the external genitals to the cervix.
- The cervix: The opening that connects the vagina and the uterus.
- The uterus: Also called the womb. This is where a baby grows.
- The fallopian tubes: These connect the uterus to the ovaries.
- The ovaries: The ovaries produce eggs, which are released each month (ovulation). When an egg meets a sperm cell and attaches to the wall of the uterus, pregnancy occurs.
Sexual Health Step 2: Pregnancy and Birth Control
Unplanned pregnancy is one of the most important sexual health issues facing teens. Three in ten teenaged girls in the U.S. will become pregnant. Of these, one quarter will become pregnant again within two years. And more than 50% of teen mothers will not graduate from high school.
That’s serious — and to prevent it, you, as a parent, need to get serious. It’s not enough to tell your teen “just don’t do it.” In fact, abstinence-only sex education has led to higher rates of pregnancy and STDs (STIs). In addition, fact-based education about sex, sexuality and birth control lowers teen pregnancy rates. You’d be surprised at the weird (and sometimes dangerous) things people believe prevent pregnancy. So arm your teens with the facts.
Once you’ve discussed the male and female reproductive systems — that is, how pregnancy occurs — the next step is to teach your teen how not to make a baby. You might be happy to learn that although the teen pregnancy rate remains high in the U.S., that rate has actually declined over the past ten years. And that’s because more teens are using birth control.
Birth Control Methods
Here are some commonly available birth control methods. You can find detailed information, as well as more methods at BirthControl.com. In addition, Advocates for Youth has a handy guide for talking to teens about birth control and sexual health.
Definition: not having penetrative sex.
Effectiveness: 100% effective against pregnancy and STDs.
Safety: 100% safe, no side effects.
Definition: Hormone-based chemical birth control. Includes birth control pills, patches, sponges, and implants.
Effectiveness: Greater than 99% effective against pregnancy. No protection against STDs.
Safety: Some side effects. Increased risk of female cancers, cardiovascular disease, and blood clots.
Definition: Birth control that prevents sperm from traveling past the cervix. These include condoms, female condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps.
Effectiveness: Used alone: 79%-85% effective against pregnancy. Used with spermicide: 95%-99% effective against pregnancy. Sheepskin condoms are not effective against STDs. Latex and polyurethane male condoms are highly effective against STDs, but other barrier methods are less effective.
Safety: Safe for people who do not have latex allergies.
Sexual health requires that teens know how to correctly use different birth control methods. A doctor must prescribe hormonal birth control, and the prescription will come with instructions. If your teen has a birth control prescription, make sure she reads and follows the instructions. In addition, the CDC has simple (and graphic) instructions for using a condom.
Sexual Health Step 3: Preventing Disease
Pregnancy is a major sexual health concern for heterosexual teens. But any sexually active person of any sexuality can get a sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD, STI or VD). STDs range from mildly irritating (chlamydia, pubic lice) to deadly (HIV, syphilis). Some are easy to cure with over the counter or prescription medicines. Others will remain with you for life.
The only 100% effective way to avoid STDs is to avoid sexual contact with an infected person. The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is infected. Some people have no symptoms at all, and a person might not even know they’re infected. Some STDs or STIs can spread through skin to skin contact. You can get others through contact with bodily fluids like blood or semen. STDs can spread through unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal contact. Anyone of any sexuality can get any kind of STD. You can read more about different kinds of STDs, their symptoms, how they spread, and their treatment at the Planned Parenthood website.
It is extremely important that we prevent STDs before they occur. Due to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, some common, curable diseases are no longer quite so treatable.
Consider Alternatives to Penetrative Sex: Avoiding contact with genitals and bodily fluids is the only 100% effective way to avoid an STD. Abstinence is one alternative. So is outercourse.
Testing: Ideally, both partners should have an STD test before becoming intimate. You can learn where to get free, confidential STD testing in your area at the CDC website.
Barriers: Use a latex or polyurethane condom for vaginal sex, anal sex, or for oral sex on a male. Use a dental dam for oral sex on a female. The CDC website has excellent information about dental dams, including how to make one out of a condom.
The Effects of Drugs on Decision Making
We all know that drugs, including alcohol, can cloud a person’s decision-making ability. A 2012 study explains why. A newly discovered part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for making decisions in the moment. Drugs and alcohol affect the ability of the orbitofrontal cortex to weigh these decisions against experience and learned values. This means that no matter how well we’ve taught our teens our values, drugs and alcohol can physically prevent the brain from making smart decisions in the moment. And this is a huge issue when it comes to sexual health.
As hard as we try to protect our teens, they will encounter drugs and alcohol. Therefore, it’s important for them to understand the effects of drugs on decision making. And alcohol is a drug, too. It’s not enough to tell your teen to “just say no.” They need to know why. Scholastic has some excellent, fact-based teaching materials aimed at teens. These materials can help you and your teen understand how drugs and alcohol affect the body, the mind, and decision making.
Books and Websites that Can Help
Here are some books and websites that can help you give your teen the facts about sexual health:
- Planned Parenthood: Sexual Health
- Centers for Disease Control: Reproductive Health
- Kids Health: Sexual Health
- Rutgers University: Books about Teen Sexual Health
- The Tulsa Campaign: Age-Appropriate Books about Sexuality and Pregnancy
Talking to teens about sexual health can be scary. But unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are scarier. You’ve spent many years teaching your teens your family’s values about sex and sexuality. Now is the time to teach them the facts about sexual health, so that when the time comes, they can make healthy decisions. Trust your kids. Trust the strength of your own parenting. And arm them with the truth.
Featured Image CC 4.0 by David Thomson, via Wikimedia Commons.