But parents can and should fill the gaps in sex education, says Laura Widman, associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.
“The Supreme Court’s decision makes it more important than ever that we give teenage girls all the tools they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” said Widman, who researches adolescent sexual health. “In all states, and especially in states that do not provide comprehensive sex education in schools, parents have a critical role to play in discussing pregnancy prevention with their children.”
However, she understands parents’ reluctance to talk to their children about the important but sensitive topics of sex and birth control. “A lot of times this anxiety of ‘I don’t mean the wrong thing. I don’t want to screw up my child permanently” becomes such a barrier that parents say nothing.
We talked to Widman and others about how best to approach the subject for parents who want their children to use birth control when they become sexually active.
Start early and talk often
Throw away any assumptions about having “the conversation” with your kids. Building an open and supportive relationship about all aspects of sexuality means having lots of age-appropriate discussions with your children, experts say.
“I think it’s never too early for a parent to start talking with their children in a developmentally appropriate way about sexual health and safety,” said Annie Hoopes, pediatrician and medical researcher. for adolescents specializing in sexual and reproductive health care. “So for very young children, it’s about understanding your body and who is allowed access to your body and how to communicate your body’s needs.”
As children reach puberty, she added, conversations can become more technical and focus on issues such as sexual intimacy and how to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
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Waiting for the right moment to address these issues is also a mistake. “There will never be a perfect time or a good time to discuss sex-related things,” Widman said. “So, start. You can take advantage of an opportunity when you hear about something in the news, and you start simple and keep it short and sweet.
Not talking to your teens can give them the wrong impression of where you stand, said Julie Maslowsky, a developmental psychologist and associate professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In our research, we’ve seen many cases where a teen assumes their parent is opposed to birth control use, and the parent is actually supportive but just hasn’t had a conversation with their teen yet. about it,” she said.
In her research involving parents of pregnant teenagers, “often what we hear is, ‘I was going to talk to her about birth control or we were going to go to the doctor. It was on my list,” Maslowsky said. “And so I would say, ‘Do it early. Do it well before you fear there is an imminent risk of pregnancy or unhealthy consequences of sex. ”
It can take time to find a method the teen is comfortable with, which is another reason to start talking about birth control early. “Giving the teen options to start learning about and asking questions about contraception before they need it can provide a really good foundation,” Hoopes said.
Teenage pregnancy has been on a downward trend since 1991; in 2021, there were 14.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, according to provisional data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited fewer teenage girls having sex and better use of birth control as likely reasons for the decline, but also points out that the rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States is among the highest in the developed world.
If your child is in high school, chances are he’s having sex. According research 2017 from the Guttmacher Institute, 20% of high school freshmen had had sex, rising to 57% of seniors.
How to talk to kids about sex
Parents often have the misconception that some forms of birth control are age-restricted, but Hoopes said that as long as a teenager has menstruated and is otherwise healthy, “all methods are available except the sterilization, which involves tying your tubes”. The choices essentially boil down to three types, from least effective to most effective: barrier methods such as condoms and diaphragms; short-acting methods such as birth control pills, vaginal rings, and skin patches or injections; and long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), such as an IUD or implant.
However, many teenagers are not using the most effective methods of contraception. According to the CDC, data collected from 2015 to 2017 on contraceptive methods used by sexually active women aged 15 to 19 found that 97% used condoms, 65% used withdrawal, and 53% used pills. Nineteen percent had used emergency contraception.
Many teens are also unaware of LARC options, which are expensive. But public health experts are trying to change that. A Colorado Initiative to improve access to these options, nearly halve teenage pregnancy and abortion rates.
When talking to your children, the main goal should be to make them understand that they can contact you no matter what situation they find themselves in. A parent might say something like, “’What I want for you is to achieve your personal goals, finish your education, or live your best adult life. And part of that is avoiding pregnancy before you’re ready for one. And I want to be part of this conversation with you. “
Widman suggests avoiding yes/no questions, such as “Are you safe?” Instead, you could ask more open-ended questions, such as “What have you heard about birth control?” or “What are your friends saying about sexual activity?”
Experts say you should have similar conversations about birth control options with boys as you do with girls. “Adolescents who identify as male and female need to understand biology, gender, healthy relationships, and supportive relationships,” Maslowsky said. “And so, I wouldn’t have the conversations much differently. If my teenager was able to get pregnant, I would talk to her about how to prevent pregnancy in her own body. If my teenager was able to get someone pregnant, then I would talk to him about how he can prevent that.
Currently, the only male contraceptive option is the condom. While condoms are 98% effective with “perfect use” (regularly and correctly), the rate drops to 82% with “typical use” (which usually happens in real life). “To use a condom in a way that maximizes effectiveness requires some education,” Hoopes said. If your teen isn’t getting this education at school, you can talk to their pediatrician about it.
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Beyond condoms, which adolescents of any gender should use to prevent sexually transmitted infections, boys should understand and participate in decisions about other forms of contraception and support their partners, experts said.
“I would say that pregnancy prevention is everyone’s responsibility and I think, unfortunately, boys are left out of this conversation, not by their fault,” Hoopes said.
Help your child consider their options
All birth control options have pros and cons, and most have potential side effects. “The best thing a parent can do is provide information, provide support, and help the teen make the decision that’s right for them,” Maslowsky said.
Health care providers are ready to help. “We use a model called shared decision-making in contraceptive care,” Hoopes said, “where the patient or patient and parent are the experts on their own experience and body, and the doctor or clinician is the expert of the methods and how they are used and what are the risks and side effects. And together, in partnership, we make a decision that is best for that patient.
Ideally, teens will want to talk to their parents about birth control, but if not, parents can make sure teens have time to talk privately with their pediatrician during their annual checkups or help them identify other adults – like a family friend or favourite. aunt — who would support them and help them find resources.
Parents can also guide teens – and themselves – to online information from organizations such as the CDC, Planned parenthood and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The experts also recommended several other resources: Amaze.org has a website and YouTube channel designed specifically for teens by the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, which focuses on sex education. Power to Decide, a non-profit organization that seeks to prevent unplanned pregnancies, has a page titled Find your method. It also works Bedsider.org, a site aimed at older teens and people in their twenties. The reproductive health access project has a detailed table about birth control options.
According to Maslowsky, there is a consensus in the scientific community “that adolescents can make decisions about their health care, their sexual and reproductive health care, that they are absolutely able to weigh the pros and cons and make decisions about what is good for them. in terms of contraception, in terms of sexual activity or not, in terms of abortion.
Researchers also know that teenagers like to get advice on these issues from adults they are close to. “And so if a teenager comes to you and asks for your help, your opinion, that’s fine,” she said. “That means they’re exercising their ability to make those informed decisions. They use trusted experts. And so, I would work with them on the decision. I would support them in their decision.