How Parents Shape Teens’ Sexual Decision-Making for the Better
If you are a parent, you have a greater influence on your teen’s decision-making, particularly about sex, than you may realize. And today, your teen needs you more than ever.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are at an all-time high – for the fourth year running. Adolescents are only a quarter of the sexually active population, but they contract 1 in every 2 STDs in the U.S. What’s more, 1 in every 5 new HIV diagnoses are in youth between 13 and 24 years of age. And, while the teen pregnancy rate has decreased in the past decade, there are still more than 200,000 teen births annually.
But, there is some good news. Less high school students report ever having sex in the past decade. More teens waiting longer to have sex is great, because it leaves more time for their decision-making to mature and helps them avoid the negative consequences of irresponsible decisions about sex.
Unfortunately, there is cause for concern, too.
While less high school students are having sex, condom use among those who do is declining. Roughly half of sexually active adolescents say they didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex. And the stats are looking worse for the most effective method of preventing HIV, STIs, and pregnancy: at less than 9%, dual method use is dismally low.
We know from science that teens rely heavily on emotions when making decisions. This is where parents can help. Studies show that adolescents with involved parents have much higher emotional regulation when it comes to decision-making. Particularly open parent-adolescent communication about sex and contraception has been linked to delayed sexual debut and condom use.
What you might not expect: adolescents actually want their parents to talk about sex. Typically, adolescents identify their parents, and that's older and younger teens, as being most influential in terms of their decisions regarding sex.
So, what specifically can parents do?
Parents best support their teen with involvement, communication, and supervision—skills taught through our program Families Talking Together. While talking about sex may be uncomfortable, it is crucial for parents to take the lead and initiate the conversation. Be open with your teen, look for opportunities for direct, nonjudgmental dialogue, and regularly check-in about their sexual and reproductive health needs – including contraception.
It’s important for parents to clearly communicate rules and expectations and to follow through. Your goal should be to be both accessible and consistent. Additionally, you should help your teen access contraception and give them guidance how to use it correctly and consistently.
Talking to your teen works – and it makes a big difference.
Fathers: this includes you too!
Our current project, Fathers Raising Responsible Men, works with fathers as a unique source of influence on young men and their decisions – beyond the role of fathers as disciplinarian and financial provider.
Based on preliminary findings, our project suggests that fathers can positively impact the decisions that adolescent males make when it comes to sex. It turns out, even small efforts like providing guidance and access to condoms really matter.
Overall, mothers and fathers are most successful when they teach their teen specific and applicable skills for making the right call when it comes to sex and contraception.
Parents are uniquely positioned to provide resources and opportunities that can change their teens’ future trajectories, such as after-school programming and healthcare. Similarly, strong and supportive parent-adolescent relationships help teens hold positive views of the future.
October is “Let’s Talk Month.” We invite you, mothers and fathers, to make it count and talk to your teens about sex. Talking about sex helps your teen make better decisions and it supports an open relationship that is good for you – and most importantly – your teen’s future.
Dr. Guilamo-Ramos is a professor at NYU, director of the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health (CLAFH), core developer of Families Talking Together (FTT) and Fathers Raising Responsible Men (FRRM), and nurse practitioner at the Adolescent AIDS Program at Children’s Hospital of Montefiore Medical Center.