It’s the news that will fill every teen—and, probably, parent—with dread: sex talks actually work. Researchers analyzing the efficacy of precautionary powwows found that they were directly linked to young people exhibiting less risky behaviors, such as practicing safe sex, and that talks which came from moms had the greatest impact.
Psychologist Laura Widman of North Carolina State University reviewed 52 studies charting the sexual activities of more than 25,000 teens, all of whom had spoken to at least one parent about taking precautions in the bedroom. No matter what topics were discussed, having any kind of conversation on the matter proved effective in rendering them more likely to use condoms or other contraception, and stop them rushing into having sex for the first time.
“Talking with your kids about sex and protection matters,” Dr. Widman told NBC. “Starting this conversation, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassing it might be—your kid will listen. We found this overall effect—that teens that talk with their parents about safer-sex topics like condoms and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were more likely to use protection than teens that didn’t have these conversations.”
While adolescents account for one-quarter of the sexually active population in the U.S., the demographic has half of the country’s STDs. More than 13 percent of sexually active teens did nothing to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex, making Widman’s analysis all the more important.
Writing a commentary in JAMA Pediatrics, the same publication in which the study was published, professor Vincent Guilamo-Ramos of New York University’s Silver School of Social Work highlighted the importance of open family dialogue and making adolescents aware of possible risks. “Parents should stress that the positive things teens hope to gain from sex, like more closeness with a partner, feeling popular or mature, are false expectations, and do not outweigh the dangers of teen pregnancy or STDs.”
“Many parents are fearful that if they bring the topic up, teens will initiate sexually, but the opposite is true,” he explained.
Sex educator Dr. Jamilla Rosdahl agrees that transparency at home is crucial. “In Sweden and Norway, where comprehensive home and school education on sexuality and social health start much earlier…teens are less likely to engage in unsafe sex or drug use.”
Given adolescents’ rep for categorically ignoring everything their parents say, this review shows that things are in fact getting through—particularly for moms giving “the talk” to their daughters. But how can dads do so just as effectively? Here’s how…
The sex talk how-to for dads
• Avoid dressing up as either a bird or a bee. That kind of dad humor just won’t fly (see) when talking about teens’ nether regions.
• Don’t make it scary. “Fear-based, moralizing messages on sexuality… [can] actually stop young people from making critically-informed decisions,” Dr. Jamilla says. “Instead they cause confusion, guilt, discomfort and depression.”
• Be efficient. There’s a 99.9 percent likelihood of awkwardness here, so cover the key points in a comprehensive but quick fashion.
• Don’t try to be a cool dad. Dads who try to be cool dads always end up being really, really uncool dads. Cast aside your own liberal interpretation of “young person vernacular” (you are not Phil Dunphy) and just keep it, well, normal.
• Encourage openness. “Let them know you are interested in what they think and how they feel,” advises the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “When your children share feelings with you, praise them for it.”
• Try not to rely on the “ask your mother” get-out clause. If your kid is willing to talk to you about this stuff in the first place, that means something.
• Don’t talk about what you and mom got up to when you were teens. Adolescent brains are like sponges, and those are mental images that can never be wrung out.