Parents of teens often agree that they really want their children to delay having sex and choose to practice abstinence. Yet at the same time many express their frustrations and anxieties about discussing this topic with their children. How does a parent go about raising this sensitive topic with a child? How will the parent deal with some of the kinds of arguments they anticipate hearing when they try to have this conversation? This section is designed to offer some ideas and guidance.

One thing to keep clearly in mind as you initiate this discussion is that you will be far more effective if you plan to make this topic part of an ongoing conversation given in small chunks rather than in “the talk” that happens on one occasion with the intent of having a lasting influence. Once you’ve raised the topic of abstinence, show your willingness to be the ask-able and approachable parent. Check out Tips for Parents for more ideas on how to keep the lines of communication open.

What is Abstinence?

This might seem very obvious to you so why even ask the question? Well, the answers some teens give might surprise you.

Although the word “abstinence” has been all over the media, that doesn’t mean that there is a uniform definition across teens as to what the word means. If your teen has heard this word (don’t assume that they have) , they may tell you that it means very simply, “no sex.” it’s important to probe a bit further to find out exactly what your teen thinks “no sex” entails.

Emphasize that abstinence refers to more than refraining from vaginal sex. It also refers to oral and anal sex. Too often, teens are convinced that if they’re not practicing vaginal sex, then they’re not having sex. Many teens practicing oral sex, for example, are convinced that they're not having sex! The same holds true for anal sex. When it comes to defining “no sex,” don’t assume anything!


Everybody's Doing It!

So you’re trying to talk to your teen about abstinence, but it seems as though he/she’s already convinced that “everybody’s doing it (having sex, that is)!”

One of the biggest myths among teens is that everybody’s doing it! In actual fact, studies have shown that less than half (48%) of all high school students have ever had sex. http:// www.stayteen.org/get-informed/myths.aspx

Sure, everybody’s talking about it, but ask your child if they’ve ever heard somebody talk about something that turned out later not to be true. Also, consider an example where someone grossly exaggerated what actually happened. Chances are that you both can come up with a few examples!


Why Wait?

With all the continued emphasis on sex from both the media and peers, along with internal bodily pressures like raging hormones, your teen may well be asking why he/she should consider waiting. To help give you some ideas as to how to have this conversation, consider some of the things that health educators who often speak with teens discuss.

Video: Abstinence is Always a Choice, Parts 1 & 2
Listen to Dennis Torres, health educator, as he stresses the importance of choices. Abstinence is always a choice for everyone, no matter our age. Even adults who are married face periods when circumstances require abstinence (e.g. illness, periods of separation, etc.) It’s not always an easy choice, but it’s important to remember that it should always be a choice.

(You may get into the conversation about the influence of drugs and/or alcohol on the choice to have sex. Of course, when one is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, it’s important to recognize that this condition will compromise the ability to make rational decisions about sex. Yet the decision whether or not to use drugs and/or alcohol and give up this control is also a choice that a teen can make. Please note that for those teens that have been forced against their will to have sex, the fact that sex should always be their choice is an extremely important message! They need to know that they are entitled to the right to make that choice every single time and that no one has the right to make that choice for them!)

Video: Caring for Your Body
Many of us have no problem talking to our child about caring for the body when we’re discussing things like the hair, a cut on the hand or a fungus on the toe, but when it comes to talking about genitalia, it’s a whole different story. JoAnn Henderson, health educator, provides us some ideas as to how to go about having this conversation.


Thinking About Consequences

The media would have us believe that multiple sex partners are the norm. In media portrayals, it seems that having sex whenever you find someone especially attractive is a good idea and even expected as a way to initiate a relationship.

How often have you seen a couple on TV or in the movies meet for the first time and then decide to “go back to her/his place” for a mad, passionate ending to a “perfect evening?” Instead of ignoring scenes such as these, try using one of them as a stepping off point for a discussion. Ask questions such as:
  • What do you think happened the next morning? Is there any chance that someone might have regretted their actions? Why?

    Fact: 6 in 10 teens who have had sex say they wish they had waited.
    (National Campaign for Teen Pregnancy Prevention)

  • While the scenes from the media seem so glamorous, were there any risks involved that this couple never seemed to consider?

    Fact: 1 in 4 sexually active teens get a sexually transmitted disease every year.
    Fact: 3 in 10 girls in the US get pregnant at least once by age 20.
    Fact: A girl can get pregnant the first time she has sex.

    Studies indicate that the earlier sexual activity is initiated, the greater the number of sexual partners the teen will have over time thereby increasing the risk of both teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

  • Here is a video with some young people sharing some of negative consequences they experienced after they became sexually active. (This excerpt is taken from the video, Taking Charge of Your Sexual Health, produced by the Washington Office of the Superintendent’s and Seattle Public Schools with funding from the CDC in 2001.)

    Video: Thinking about Teen Pregnancy
    Listen to JoAnn Henderson, health educator, as she discusses the issue of teen pregnancy. Here Ms.Henderson stresses the importance of discussing sexual responsibility and the implications of a pregnancy for a teenager.


Have You Discussed Your Family Values?

There are many different messages being conveyed to your child each day about sexuality. The sources (or storytellers) giving these messages are most often outside your home. They are friends and other peers. They are also often found in the media which conveys to our children many messages about sexuality on a regular basis. While most of us wouldn’t invite a person into our home to give our children some of these messages and tell some of the stories that are often told, our children are regularly exposed to these messages and these stories.

Don’t entrust the media and your child’s peer group to assume the major role in discussing something as important as sex. You are your child’s most important teacher! Only you can share your family’s values about sex with your child.

Just as the media is relentless in its messages about sex, you too must remember that this is not a one-time conversation. Don’t try to accomplish everything all in one special talk. Rather, your message will be far more effective if it’s part of an ongoing conversation that continues over time as your child matures. Being an ask-able parent is what it’s all about so that your message is part of an ongoing conversation. Check out Advice to Parents for suggestions here.


How to Say NO

Teens often have questions as to how to say “no” to sexual advances. There are many teens who give in to sexual pressures because they simply don’t know how to deal with the situation. Help your child consider some of the ways that she/he might go about refusing to have sex. Here are some tips:
  • Your child whether girl or boy (yes, boys are feeling plenty of pressure also) may very well need your help in coming up with ideas as to how to reply to sexual pressure. Discuss some sample replies to sexual pressure.

  • While you’re having some quiet time together, such as when you’re driving your child to an appointment or an event, discuss some imaginary situations where pressure could happen:

    1. A girl or boy arrives at a party, a lot of people are making out and there is alcohol. Also, once arriving at the party, they discover that no parents are home even though they were told that parents would be present. Discuss what might happen and how the teens could deal with it, such as developing a plan beforehand with their parent to signal the parent on their cell phone so that they could have an excuse to leave and have a ride home should they find themselves in a difficult situation.

    2. A teen has gone out with a group of friends but one special friend has been trying to get her/him alone all night. When this finally happens, pressure to have sex begins. How can this be handled?

    3. Consider some sexual pressure lines such as “It’s time to take our relationship to the next level” and discuss some possible comebacks to these lines. Consider how a teen could handle this situation without hurting the person that they cared about? What if the person wouldn’t accept their decision and threatened to end the “relationship?”

  • Use an example you or your teen has seen in the media and try to imagine how it could have been handled if the person had tried using refusal skills. What could that person have done? What might have happened? If there had been mutual respect of one another’s feelings and decisions, would the relationship have ended?

  • Have a phone conversation about refusal skills with a friend or relative while your teen is within hearing distance. You and your friend could consider some of the difficult situations “teens today” find themselves in and some of your ideas as to what to do. Or you could discuss some examples you’re familiar with and the way the person went about saying “no.”