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What is the best age to talk to our children about birth control?

proactive-parenting-what-is-the-best-age-to-talk-to-our-children-about-birth-control

Lots of parents wonder when it is appropriate to talk to their children about sex and birth control. Yet more important than talking about birth control at a certain age, parents can help their children avoid unintentional pregnancy by discussing the dignity of the human body beginning in early childhood.

Teaching children to use the correct names to describe their genitals from infancy can remove negative stigma related to sexuality, empower children to own their bodies from a young age, and help reduce the risk of sexual abuse by avoiding making the body a play object or toy1. Additionally, teaching children that their bodies are private and should only be seen by parents or health care providers can make them aware of how important they are and give them tools to begin making decision about what is right and wrong for their bodies.

Parents can begin talking to their children about the human body from a young age. Describing the true origin of babies in a clear and honest manner from the first years of life when the questions begin to emerge is useful to prepare the foundation for more elaborate conversations that will occur later. Parents don’t have to get into a lot of detail. Simple, factual answers will eliminate the mystery and open doors for future conversations.

As children grow up, promoting this education in respecting the human body can continue by discussing overt sexuality or hyper-sexuality that is commercially seen in society. Speaking to children, in age appropriate language and terms, about explicit messages coming from music videos, commercials, television programming, and Internet memes/videos/social media around sex and sexuality can help children begin to learn that those messages may not match the family’s values. Parents can use these images to educate and inform both boys and girls. Little by little, children learn to question the images they see, seek advice and counsel from parents when they see something they know does not match the family’s values, and, over time, learn to make their own judgment on sexually explicit images.

Finally, during adolescence when teens have more independence, parents need to speak directly to them about the risks of premature sexual behavior and what choices they can make to reduce the risks to their physical, mental, social, and emotional health if they do decide to engage in sexual activities. Studies show that a strong relationship between adolescents and their parents, especially between mothers and daughters, may help to protect against early sexual initiation, help delay sexual initiation and create healthier sexual practices (e.g. condom use, contraception, seeking medical treatment for infections/STDs, etc.)2.

Parents who choose to educate their children about the value of the human body and teach their children about being respectful to their own bodies, and the bodies of others, will find it easier to open conversations about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Discussions of birth control should be introduced before menstruation for girls and before puberty for boys. Parents can speak in a loving and educational way to inform their teens of the body’s ability to have babies, the sexual urges driven by hormones and increasing social interaction with peers, and the actual physical changes that will occur during puberty. An example of how to start this conversation could be, “once you begin your period (girls)/go through puberty (boys), you will have the ability to have a baby and your body will have feelings that seem strange right now, but later will feel natural. Luckily we live in a time when women and men can choose when they want to have babies so we can study and have professions. When the time comes, we will talk about what options there are so you can choose when, or if, you want to have babies.”

Later, when older teens are going out regularly or dating, parents can speak to directly and honestly to their children about protection from both sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

How to start

Talking in a matter-of-fact way can be freeing for teens to actively participate in the conversation. The key is mutual respect and trust, privacy, and time to explore the teen’s feelings without judgment. Create a safe space for your teen to talk.

For example, asking, “How often are you having sex?” rather than “Are you having sex?” is a approach to open the lines of communication. The first option presupposes that the child is sexually active so he or she can just state the frequency or say “I’m not.” The second question presupposes that the child is not having sex and so he or she is faced with the choice of continuing that assumption or admitting they are sexually active. The first option is easier for the child and gives an open and safe space to talk. The second demands a confession and puts barriers in place between the parent and child.

Parents should begin these conversations way earlier than they think. Respect for the child’s own body and the bodies of others should be a continuing conversation that is weaved into other elements of their education. Sexuality should not be a taboo subject; sexuality is the essence of each person and should be discussed and presented in age appropriate ways throughout childhood and adolescence. Avoiding secrecy in relation to sex can help children reach out to trusted adults if questions, needs or issues arise.

Lots of teens know about birth control but fail to use it. Why?

Egocentrism dominates adolescence and means that teens live in the moment and do not think about the long-term consequences of their actions. So, when teens are on the verge of sexual activity, they are driven by the immediate urges of their bodies without consideration of the long-term consequences (e.g. STDs, pregnancy, social fall-out). Therefore, having conversations with teens before they find themselves in those situations is useful. Parents can guide teens in problem solving some potential situations they could find themselves in before they actually experience them. Giving teens ideas about how to extract themselves from risky situations if or when they feel pressured to do something they are not ready for can help improve their chances of using birth control appropriately to protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

As parents, we can only give them the information and tools to make wise decisions. Teens have to be motivated to use them. Helping teens understand what potential consequences exist for their actions and reinforcing that some consequences are difficult to remedy, we prepare them to think before they act which is a vital part of the transition between adolescence and adulthood.


References:

1 Wurtele, S.K., Melzer, A.M., & Kast, L.C. (1992). Preschoolers' knowledge of and ability to learn genital terminology. Journal Of Sex Education And Therapy 18(2), pp. 115-122.

2 Nogueira Avelar e Silva, R., van de Bongardt, D., van de Looij-Jansen, P., Wijtzes, A., & Raat, H. (2016). Mother– and Father–Adolescent Relationships and Early Sexual Intercourse. Pediatrics 138(6), e-pub ahead of print: DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-0782

3 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Adolescent Health Care. (2017). Committee Opinion N. 710: Counseling adolescents about contraception. Obstetrics & Gynocology 130(2), pp. 74-80.

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