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Don't be afraid to talk to your teens
Health advice
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October is “Let’s Talk Month” and although this column has already addressed teen issues several times this year, these are topics that can’t be discussed too often. These issues play such a huge role in the lives of families.
It’s easy for children to acquire false sets of values today — some of which come from their parents. Most adults don’t find it easy to talk about sexuality and relationships, but it is extremely important and parents should bring these topics up so there is no confusion about what their values are. Our children depend on us for information about our beliefs, values and expectations related to sexuality and alcohol/ drug use.
Research shows that young people who feel connected to their families and clearly understand family values concerning sexuality are more likely to avoid risky behaviors, like early sexual activity. This is very important for many reasons. Research shows that teens are more likely to begin having sex later in life when they have discussed sexuality with their parents. Open communication with trusted adults helps young people develop responsible, positive attitudes and behaviors about sexuality. Moreover, teens who do decide to become sexually active are more likely to use protection when their parents have discussed sexuality with them. Picking up tidbits about sex from peers and the media can create very distorted and false views that can lead to multiple problems.
According to new survey data released by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, parents greatly underestimate the influence they have over their children’s decisions about sex. Parents continue to believe that their children’s friends are more influential in their children’s sexual decisions but the majority of teens say that isn’t so and that parents have played the largest role in influencing their decisions.
The survey also reveals that most teens (88 percent) say that it would be easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents, yet nearly one in four (23 percent) of teens say they have never discussed sex, contraception or pregnancy with their parents. Six out of 10 teens (59 percent) surveyed also said that their parents are their role models for healthy, responsible relationships.
United States has the highest teen pregnancy, abortion and birth rates in the developed world. In the United States, the teen pregnancy rate is more than nine times higher than that in the Netherlands, nearly four times higher than the rate in France and nearly five times higher than Germany’s. By their 18th birthday, six in 10 teenage American girls and nearly seven in 10 teenage boys have had sexual intercourse, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Georgia has one of the highest teenage birth rates in the nation with 116 pregnancies per 1,000 girls under age 20. These statistics are even more disturbing when one realizes the far-reaching consequences of teen pregnancy. Teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school and become dependent on government assistance, and their children are more likely to require care for health problems and disabilities. The lives of everyone concerned, from the teens’ parents and siblings to the young parents and their infants, are altered forever.
Children prefer to learn about sexuality from their parents, but parents are often uncomfortable initiating such discussions. Some believe that discussing sexuality will encourage young people to be sexually active. But research shows that sexuality and HIV education do not cause young people to have sex earlier or more often. In short, telling your kids about sex will not encourage them to have sex — it will probably do the opposite. Surveys have shown that the kinds of things teens would like to ask their parents about during an open, nonjudgmental talk are:
• What should I know about my body?
• What should I know about my feelings?
• What should I know if I decide to have/not have sex?
• What should I know about peer pressure?
• What should I know about boy/girl relationships?
Parents who communicate effectively with their children about sexuality are more likely to impart the values and attitudes that will see children through adolescence and the teen years with a focus on goals for the future, rather than on pleasures of the moment.
When having sexuality discussions with your child, be prepared to:
• Listen more than talk
• Focus on behaviors, not people
• Negotiate and compromise, or at least consider other views
• Encourage an open exchange of ideas
• Foster a young person’s decision-making ability
• Encourage and receive questions
• Admit ignorance when appropriate and find the answer
• Explore feelings
• Show agreement and support often
• Be clear about expectations and listen, listen, listen!
Although schools offer programs about reproduction, abstinence, STDs, etc., what children see and learn at home is more influential. It is at home that children first begin to form the attitudes and values that will shape their sexual behaviors as they grow up. Your child should be able to look to you for the answers about relationships and sexuality not only by what you say, but also by what you do.
Parents who need more encouragement before talking to teens about sex can go to the Georgia Parents for Responsible Health Education website at or call 678-570-3262.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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