Think that parents are the only ones who get stressed when talking to their teens about sex and relationships? Think again.
Just over 50% of moms and dads express some level of unease, compared to 82% of teens, a survey out today finds.
And on issues such as how to say no to sex, teen pregnancy and sexting, 90% or more of teens say they don't want additional discussions with their parents. And one in six say their parents have never spoken to them about anything sex-related.
The findings, from a nationally representative survey of 2,000 parents and their kids ages 15-18, also show that being comfortable does not guarantee being informed: 81% of those who have sexually active teens know that their teens have had intercourse. But only 45% of those whose teens said they have had oral sex knew it.
Parents may underestimate their teen's sexual activity, but overall the new findings show that parents consider talking about sexual health an important part of their parenting job, says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The health care provider and advocacy group co-sponsored the survey, along with the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at New York University and Family Circle magazine, as part of the nationwide Let's Talk Month campaign.
Parents "absolutely want to be the primary sexual educators of their own teenagers, and they are indeed trying," says Kantor. But many get anxious addressing these issues and, as a result, "their good intentions don't always reach kids," she says. "That's where we have some work today."
According to the study's findings:
-- 42% of parents say they've talked to their teens "many times" about how to say no to sex. But just 27% of teens say parents have talked that often.
-- 48% of parents say they've talked "many times" to their teens about when sex should or shouldn't take place; 29% of teens agreed.
-- 29% of parents say they've talked "many times" to their teens about birth control methods; 35% of teens say their parents "never" or just "once" discussed the issue.
-- 39% of parents say they've discussed the risks of sexting (sending sexually explicit text messages); 41% of teens say their parents "never" or "just once" discussed the issue.
Embarrassment, to some degree, may explain why teenagers are less comfortable than parents talking about anything sex-related, but also, with so much exposure to sexual content in the media, entertainment and popular culture, teens often feel like they know more than they do, says Linda Fears, editor-in-chief of Family Circle. "They may think they have a handle on it all when they don't," she says.
The bigger issue isn't simply whether these conversations are happening, but what's being conveyed through them, says Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. Elliott was not involved in the Planned Parenthood study.
Most of the parents she spoke with for her book said they had talked about birth control with their teen, "but this was more likely to be a one-time conversation, not an ongoing one," says Elliott. "And parents expressed concern about having this conversation -- worrying that it might give the impression they were giving their teens permission to have sex."
Such concerns are unfounded, says Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, who studies the role of families in promoting adolescent health as director of New York University's Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health.
A number of reliable studies show that talking to teens about these issues helps delay the start of sexual activity, says Guilamo-Ramos. "When teens are making important decisions about their lives, like whether or not to have sex, they actually want guidance, and are absolutely interested in their parents providing them perspective," he says. "Parents are influential. Somehow we've missed that. "
The study's findings appear in November's Family Circle, out today.
Tips for talking about sex with teens
How can parents keep the conversation going with their teens about sex and sexual health? Here are some tips.
-- Teens start to tune parents out if the conversation only focuses on the "adult concerns" of teen sex, such as unplanned pregnancy, HIV and STDs, says NYU's Guilamo-Ramos. It's equally important to also address the "teen reasons" or perceived positives, such as feeling closer to a person they really care about. "Help them to tell you what's going on in their lives," he says.
-- Avoid "the Talk" approach to discussing teen sexual relationships. It's "an instant way to make someone very uncomfortable," says Planned Parenthood's Kantor. Opt instead for more natural opportunities and ask, "What do you think about that?" "Do you know anyone in a relationship like that?" "What would you do if someone talked to you like that?" The goal should be numerous, on-going dialogues, so teens get bits and pieces each time you speak to them, says Family Circle's Fears. "That's what they'll retain."
-- Make sure both mothers and fathers are on the same page, says Fears. Nearly one in four parents in the survey talked only "a little" or "not at all" with their partner about expectations about their child's sexual behavior.
-- Remember that teens who have started having sex need continued conversations and guidance about their sexual relationships, as well as using contraception consistently and appropriately, says Ramos.
By Michelle Healy