Ideally, that "facts of life" talk you have with
your children should be a series of sex ed discussions that cover a range of
topics, rather than one long talk, according to a new study.
"Because of discomfort with the topic, there is that hope that it can be
taken care of with a single talk," says Steven C. Martino, PhD, study
researcher and a behavioral scientist at Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh.
But his new study, published in the March issue of the journal
Pediatrics, suggests that a continuous, repetitive, wide-ranging
conversation with your kids about sex is the better approach.
(How do you talk
about sex with your kids? Find out what other parents have to say on our
Parenting: Preteens and Teenagers board.)
Study: Beyond the "Big Talk"
"We know [already] that the more parents talk to their kids [about sex],
the better off the kid is in terms of healthy beliefs," Martino says,
citing previous research. Children whose parents talk often about sex education
are more likely to delay sex until an older age and to take precautions when
they do become sexually active, he says.
In the new study, Martino and his colleagues wanted to assess the
independent influence of repeating topics and covering many topics on the
teen's perceptions of their relationships and communication with their parents.
"What we were interested in is whether the extent to which having repeated
discussions about sexual topics and also covering a wide variety of topics
matter" in terms of how teens feel about their relationship with their parents
and how easy it was or wasn't to talk to them about sex.
The researchers polled 312 teens in grades 6 through 10, and their parents.
They responded to four surveys during the yearlong study, telling whether they
had discussed each of 22 sex-related topics and how often they had. Teens rated
their overall relationship with their parents, too, including their ability to
communicate about sex and other topics.
Among the topics: the making of decisions about whether to have sex,
consequences of getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant, selection of a birth
control method , what it feels like to have sex, and protection offered by
Study Results: Repetition Key in Sex Ed
Repetition was good, the researchers found. "We found that kids whose
sexual communication with their parents involved more repetition felt closer to
their parents, better able to communicate with them in general and about sex in
particular, and they perceived their discussions about sex happened more easily
and with more openness in comparison to kids whose communication involved less
repetition," Martino tells WebMD.
The greater the number of topics that were discussed, the more openness
teens said they felt during these talks.
At the start of the study, the average number of topics that teens had
discussed was seven of the 22.
"On average we found that parents and teens had 10 repeat discussions
over the course of the year," Martino says. That is, they revisited a topic
previously discussed that often. Regarding breadth of topics, the average
number of new topics discussed during the study was reported as three, on
Sex Ed: The Role of Repetition and "Breadth"
"We think that having these repeated discussions is so important because
it helps kids to better understand the information," Martino says. "It
helps them to get a clear sense of what their parents' values are, and it
boosts parent and child feelings of comfort in talking
about sex ."
Revisiting a topic allows children to ask clarifying questions, he says, and
allows parents to talk about topics in a more age-appropriate way as a child
matures. Some abstract topics become less so as the child gets older, he
The study reinfores what is seen anecdotally, says Vanessa Cullins, MD,
MPH, MBA, vice president for medical affairs for Planned Parenthood of America,
New York, who reviewed the study results for WebMD.
What is new about the study, she says, is the importance of the repetition
and variety of topics.
The study, she says, "reinforces what Planned Parenthood has always
believed in, and that is that parents should be the primary educators in a
child's life, and that the best way to keep teens healthy and safe is to have
open, honest communication [about sexual matters]."
As parents, she says, "you just can't deal with the subject of sex
infrequently or every blue moon." It should be a frequent part of household
conversation, she says.
Sex Ed Advice for Parents
Lack of preparation is one cause of discomfort for parents when asked
questions about sex by their kids, Martino says. Prepare yourself for the
expected questions ahead of time, he suggests. Anticipate you'll be asked
questions sooner than you think -- maybe even when your children are still toddlers .
"It's OK to admit you feel uncomfortable," he says. It's also OK, he
says, to gather more information on a topic and get back to your kids.
One way to ease into talks about sex, Martino says, is to look for what he
calls "teachable moments." If something is in the news that is sexually
related, or something happened at school that lends itself to discussion, take
advantage, he says.
Take advantage, too, of prepared materials that may help you, Cullins says.
Many Planned Parenthood affiliates in the U.S. offer special programs that help
parents talk to their kids about sex, she says.
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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