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Teen Sex: What Parenting Approach is Healthiest?

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A look at current and trending teenage patterns of sexual behavior reveal that unprotected sex, STIs, and pregnancy are on the rise among American teenagers. The nation remains staunchly divided over the subject of how best to approach sex education in schools-with the abstinence-only camp facing off against the “abstinence-plus” camp, but what does the research bear out? Which approach is best for teenagers who are overrun with hormones and lacking a fully developed prefrontal cortex (governing decision making and impulse control), and who are inundated with media saturation of sexual themes at a heretofore unprecedented rate? And which style of parenting should we adopt around these subjects to best ensure the safety of our growing children?

What the Research Tells Us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has conducted research into teen sexual activity and health, and reports that of high school students surveyed during 2011, 47.4% had had sex. Of those, 39.8% reported not having used a condom the last time they’d had sex. 76.7% of these teens further stated they were not using other forms of birth control (the Pill, the Depo-Provera shot, etc.) the last time they’d had sex. Approximately half of the new STDs reported each year are contracted by young people ages 15-24. The CDC’s report further stated that during 2009, 400,000 teenage girls ages 15-19 had given birth.

The Aids Policy Research Center & Center for AIDS Prevention Studies released a report covering all peer reviewed studies on the subject which indicated that there was no support in the research for abstinent-only methods of sex education for youth. In other words, the abstinent-only approach was not successful in preventing STDs in teens, teen pregnancy, or the overall likelihood that teens will have sex before marriage. The studies into abstinent-only methods further reported no delay in first sexual intercourse among young people. However, “abstinence-plus” programs, which also discuss abstinence as the best method of prevention but also offer comprehensive sexual education (discussing consequences and preventive approaches to STI and pregnancy), did show important behavioral impacts, including STI reduction.

The Talk

Dartmouth University researchers report that 98% of sex viewed in movies has no reference to contraception, and 89% of sex depicted in films reveals no consequences for the characters being portrayed. Sam Summers, PhD, a researcher and professor of social psychology at Tufts University elaborates on this research, explaining that this lack of reality-based sex is potentially harmful for young people to the extent they are allowed to view it without honest conversations with parents regarding the real life consequences which are not being portrayed.

There it is: “honest conversations” and “real life consequences.” Handing our children a book on reproduction and telling them to abstain until marriage (or else?) is simply not enough. The conversations (yes, more than one) might feel uncomfortable at first, and may even be a bit tricky (holding the attention of an uncomfortable teen is not easy), but the rewards are well worth the cost, and the consequences too dire to ignore.

Child psychologists and other experts in areas of education and sexuality assert that the earlier we begin these conversations, the better. Children are exposed to sexual subject matter from an early age and likely know much more about sex by 2nd grade than we’d care to imagine (many teens report having heard slang phrases for oral sex as early as 1st grade). Helping our children to understand sexuality as a normal, healthy, human enterprise, but one which they have the right and obligation to make clear boundaries about, are lessons which should begin early.

Elementary and middle school age children are commonly sending or receiving “sexts,” even though they may not understand their behavior or its consequences. Shaming children and teenagers about sexual curiosity is unwise, say the experts, but arming them with facts and information about how they can make healthy choices is the right way to go. Teaching teenagers about STI prevention and contraceptive use, as well as the many other things healthy individuals should know about sex and sexuality, should not be conflated with condoning sexual behavior. It’s important to recognize that if our children cannot come to us for the truth-the whole truth-they will likely feel unable to trust us about the most critical issues, and will seek the information they need elsewhere.

Studies reveal that parents who are highly permissive with their teenagers about sex and other issues (i.e., parents who may condone sexual activity and/or allow it in their homes) reap similar consequences as those parents who elect a more authoritarian style, in which sex and other issues are highly punishable offenses and are not topics of conversation except to say, “You will not!” The result is often a child who is armed with too little awareness about the consequences of sexual practices and an inability to make and maintain clear and healthy boundaries for him or herself. Authoritative parenting, on the other hand, embraces a firm but loving approach. These parents are prepared to talk to their children about sex and its consequences, and prepared to take steps to protect their teenagers (gynecological visits to prescribe the Pill, for example) if necessary.

Even while an authoritative parent may not condone the idea of their teen behaving sexually, they know enough about the hard facts not to be deluded into thinking their teen never will. If it should happen, they want their child to be armed with knowledge, awareness, the sense that he or she can reach out to them, and protection. What they hope for, like all parents, is only the health and well-being of their child.

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