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Talking with teens about sex: Do's and don'ts for parents

Iakov Filimonov

Parents who talk about safe sex with their teens may have a positive impact, even if they're not always sure the message is getting through. This is especially true for teenage girls who chat with their moms, a new study suggests.

Researchers from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed medical literature including 52 previous articles on the topic that spanned 30 years of research and included more than 25,000 adolescents.

Their analysis found that parent-adolescent communication about sex had a small but significant positive effect on safer sex behavior in teens, increasing their likelihood of using condoms and contraceptives. That association was stronger for girls and stronger for adolescents who discussed sexual topics with their moms.

The study authors also reported that the link between parent communication and a teen's contraceptive and condom use was significantly stronger for girls than boys.

"Results of this study confirm that parent-adolescent sexual communication is a protective factor for youth," they wrote.

It's a message many teens need to hear. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of all high school students in the U.S. have had sex at least once, and one-third are sexually active. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for about half of all new cases of sexually transmitted diseases, and while teen pregnancies have declined significantly, there are still more than 600,000 a year.

In an accompanying editorial, Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, a professor of social work at New York University, and his coauthors noted that most research has focused on parental influences in delaying sexual activity. They said sexually active teens also benefit from parental discussions about sexual and reproductive health.

"Youth want to hear from their parents and overwhelmingly say that parents matter," the editorial authors concluded.

But sometimes those conversations are tough to start, or awkward even if they do get started. CBS News asked a few experts for some do's and don'ts to help parents tackle the topic with their teens.

DO start talking early

"I really try to emphasize with parents to start early so it's never awkward," said Dr. Anna-Barbara Moscicki, chief of Adolescent & Young Adult Medicine and professor of pediatrics at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA.

Moscicki said kids may start asking questions by age six or seven, when they start hearing and seeing things on television, the Internet, or at school. Answer their questions, she said, but keep it age-appropriate. The idea is that if you start talking early on, as your child gets older, talking about sex and its consequences will not be a taboo subject.

"Let's not wait till your 13-year-old is pregnant to have a conversation," said Moscicki.

She also reassured parents that talking about sex does not make your kid want to have sex. "There is a lot of literature that shows that."

DO update your knowledge

Parents need to be informed before they talk with their kids about sex, said Dr. Leslie Walker, division chief of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"There have been a lot of changes. There are kinds of birth control now available that weren't around when they were kids," she said.

One of Walker's favorite sites for parents, young adults, and teens who want more information on safe sex is Bedsider.org, operated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"Try to help them understand how to be as healthy about their sexuality as possible," she said.

DO share your family values

"Don't be afraid to pass on what your own beliefs are and imparting what you think is appropriate," said Walker. But let them make their own decisions about their personal lives, she advises.

DO have ongoing conversations

Talking about safe sex isn't a one-time chat, said Walker. Kids are bombarded with messages about sex at a young age. Take advantage of those "teachable moments."

"It's in our media all the time. It's not hard to find. Find ways to talk to them at a level that they might understand. And continue to talk about it and how to live your life well and make healthy choices," she said.

DON'T fear the awkward

"It's going to feel awkward. It's not something we've been raised to talk about with our kids, although we should have," said Walker.

Still, she said parents are one of the main sources of kids' information about sex, so it's important to keep communicating, even if it's not perfect.

DON'T be judgmental or punitive

"Don't shut kids down," said Walker. "Don't shut down the lines of communication, like saying, 'If you ever do this, then you're out of the house.'"

She said if something were to happen - an unplanned pregnancy or a sexual assault - a teen needs to know they could come to a parent and talk with them and get help.

UCLA's Moscicki said, "Their sexuality is not the parents' business, but parents can be there to give accurate information."

She said you can tell your child you're worried about his or her safety and approach it in the same way you might discuss drinking, explaining that you don't agree with drinking at a party, but you really don't want anyone to get behind the wheel drunk.

Like it or not, Moscicki said, "Kids are doing things. There have to be conversations saying, 'I do trust your judgment, but sometimes you might find yourself in a situation where you need help.'"

Never confront a teen with questions such as, "Are you having sex? Are you using condoms?" Moscicki advises. Instead, be a resource; ask, "Do you know where to get condoms or get birth control?" She said tell a teen you recognize it's his or her private decision.

"Tell them, 'I just want to make sure you guys are safe. I care about you.' The remarks can be more about talking about sexuality rather than making inquiries," said Moscicki, who added that if they can't approach you and get accurate information, they may be experiencing peer pressure, getting their information from an ill-informed friend, or turning to undependable online sources.

DON'T overshare

"Kids don't want to know about their parents' sex life, or what happened to you when you were a teen," said Walker.

UCLA's Moscicki agreed: "Personalizing it - that's what really turns kids off."

Moscicki said, instead, if you want to start a conversation, try referring to an article you read or something you're watching on television.

"Your kid may surprise you and say, 'I am not ready right now and not planning on it.'"

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