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Why and How to Talk to Your Teens About Sex and Pregnancy

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Frederik Broden

Most parents confess deep uneasiness, even embarrassment, about discussing sex and pregnancy prevention. "The subject brings up a lot of control issues," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (Three Rivers Press) and a Family Circle contributing editor. "We're forced to face the fact that our children make decisions without our input and against what we'd choose for them. And the topic also brings up our deep discomfort about the messiness of sexual responsibility and values. We don't like thinking about teen sexual activity, so we deny to ourselves that it exists." Teen motherhood, adoption, abortion, radically different ideas about who a person should have sex with, when, and why—these topics are as fraught for families as they are for society at large. "It's not like the subject of drugs, where you can say, 'Don't ever do it,'" says Karen Troccoli, a professional teen health educator in Bethesda, Maryland. "It's more like, 'Wait. Not yet. Eventually.' The message has to be much more nuanced." Another complication, says Wiseman, is that moms and dads are too apt to believe teens who say they're still virgins. "Kids are great at spinning things in their own minds so they come across as incredibly sincere," she says. "And adults fall for the stories."

Many families depend too much on schools for sex education, says Troccoli. "But those classes meet for only a couple of hours, for a few weeks. Kids need answers all the time." And even parents who are willing to address these issues at home aren't sure what they should be saying. "There's a big concern that by teaching about contraception, you're giving tacit approval to your kids to have sex," she says. "But research shows that's not true. It's like telling your children not to drink, but if you do drink, don't drive." Ignorance doesn't hold them back. In fact, it puts them at greater risk.

What many parents don't realize is that the information being given in sex ed isn't always complete. While 22 states require emphasis on abstinence in these classes, and 17 suggest that contraception be mentioned, to date no state makes it compulsory to educate kids about birth control. Meanwhile, the best approach by far, according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, is instruction that focuses on abstinence until teens are older—but not necessarily married—and answers students' questions about birth control accurately. "I live in an abstinence-only state," says Paula Van Valkenburg, of Spartanburg, South Carolina, who has two daughters who became teen mothers, one at 15, the other at 17. "And at home we had very strict guidelines about dating and sex. If I could turn back the clock, I would have brought up birth control much more often, including how important it was for them not to leave it up to the young man."

Some parents, too, may feel discouraged about competing with the deluge of outside information their tweens and teens are flooded with. And they're right to be concerned. Kids ages 12 to 17 who watch a lot of sexually charged television shows are twice as likely to experience a pregnancy in the subsequent three years as those who watch the fewest, according to a recent report in the journal Pediatrics. The idea of being in the spotlight—whether as star of a TV show or just of your own social group—as well as the unconditional love babies bring, may explain why many teen girls become pregnant intentionally, says Bill Albert, chief program officer of The National Campaign. "Some teens think a baby automatically makes you an adult," he explains. "And others think of a baby almost as an accessory or cool thing to have." Susan, who decided not to let her daughter attend the friend's baby shower, worries that teen motherhood is starting to look too easy. "When we celebrate it that much," she says, "I think we risk making the pregnant girl's peers jealous of the attention. You can show support without forgetting that this is not okay."

There are no guarantees that our kids will make it through their teen years without experiencing a pregnancy. But one truth remains: "The research shows," says Albert, "that parents who brave their own discomfort and talk with their children about relationships, love, sex, and contraception, who express honest caring and concern about these issues, and are clear about what they think and why, greatly reduce their children's risk of teen parenthood." Mothers and fathers, in other words, still have enormous influence—even during those times when what's happening in the moment may overwhelm a kid's common sense.

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