Talking to Your Kids About Sexually Transmitted Infections
It used to be that all kids had to worry about was the math test they didn’t study enough for or who they were going to go with to the prom. As a parent, it may be difficult to accept that your children are sexual—and even harder to think of them engaging in behaviors that would put them at risk for diseases like AIDS or herpes .
More than three million new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are diagnosed in teenagers each year, making conversations with children about prevention, screening, and early treatment very important. Below are strategies you can use when talking to your children about sexually transmitted infections.
Talking to Your Kids
- Educate yourself about the facts. Learn information on common symptoms, risk factors, treatments, and ways to protect against STIs. Share this information with your children.
- Don’t use scare tactics. Empower your children with the facts and try to correct misconceptions. For instance, many teens may think that oral sex or mutual masturbation is safe, even though many STIs can be passed on these ways.
- Be a good communicator.
- It is ideal to start talking to your children about sex and STIs as soon as they first ask about it. This communication can start when they are young and first ask about their bodies.
- Focus on the facts.
- Express compassion, morals, and your position. Avoid harsh or oppressive words.
- Answer questions simply and look for ways to expand the conversation.
- Use age-appropriate language. How you talk to a four-year-old about his body is very different than the teenage pre-prom talk. Children ask for and need different information at different ages.
Shift focus of your talks to the social and emotional aspects of sex. This includes:
- Dating and date rape
- Setting limits to sexual activity
- Resisting peer pressure
- Using birth control
- Taking precautions against STIs
- Masturbating and other sexual activities
- Be prepared to learn that your children have become interested in sex. It may be difficult to think of your children as sexual, but ignoring the issue could put them in danger.
- Talk about prevention techniques. Abstinence, masturbation, other types of intimacy (massages, talking, cuddling), and safer-sex are all ways your chidren can reduce their risk of getting an STI.
- Remember your childhood and adolescence. What were the risks you took? The consequences? Personal stories can make the threat of STIs seem more real.
- Provide resources for later questions. Your children may have questions that they are embarrassed to ask. Help them find resources that may answer their questions. This could also include encouraging them to talk with their doctor or other trusted adults.
- Take advantage of “teachable moments.” Television programs, a friend’s pregnancy, or other times that sex or STIs are mentioned are good times to initiate discussions. It is generally better to have many smaller discussions about sex than one big talk.
Helping Your Children Protect Themselves
- Provide good role models. Children can learn from your example and the example of other good role models like older siblings, relatives, and friends.
- Promote self-confidence. Praise honesty, independence, talent, effort, responsibility, and good decision-making. This will promote self-confidence, which can help your children overcome peer pressure and make good decisions about sex.
- Encourage positive feelings about sex. People who have positive feelings about sex, their bodies, and masturbation are more likely to protect themselves from STIs, unintended pregnancy, and sexual abuse. Try to instill these positive feelings in your children.
- Foster good decision-making skills. Offer options instead of giving orders. By making good choices from an early age, children gain practice in making good decisions.
- Develop trust. If your children know that you will be there for them no matter what, they may be more willing to trust you with information about their sexual activity and ask questions. Try to be patient and reasonable to foster this trusting relationship. Respecting your children's privacy, personal space, and individuality can also help gain trust.
- Reassure your child. Children can feel isolated and depressed going through the teen years. Stress that "being different is normal" and that other teens have similar feelings.
Preventing and Minimizing the Impact of STIs
A vaccination is available for hepatitis B . Vaccines are also being developed for other STIs caused by viruses. Recently, Gardasil, a vaccine to protect against human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, has become available.
The current recommendation is routine vaccination of girls aged 11-12 years in a 3-dose series. A schedule is available for catch-up vaccination as well. Certain types of HPV have been associated with future development of cervical cancer. Ask your child's doctor about new vaccines that may be available.
It is much easier to prevent an STI than to cure or treat it afterward. The only way to completely prevent STIs is to have no type of sexual contact.
Reducing the Risk
Condoms are the only birth control method that offers protection against STIs. The risk can also be reduced by having sex within a monogamous relationship and by making sure both partners are not infected.
Getting Annual Check-ups
These are important even if you do not believe your child is sexually active. Your child should have regular gynecological or male genital exams by the time they are 18 years old, or sooner if they are sexually active.
Accessing Confidential Healthcare
Often teens will have a difficult time telling their parents or even friends about STI symptoms or exposures. Having access to confidential healthcare assures that they will get the medical attention and tests that they need.
What to Do If Your Child Has an STI
- Provide access to treatment. STIs must be accurately diagnosed and fully treated to prevent long-term health problems, permanent disability, or even death.
- Reassure your child. Having an STI does not make him or her a bad person.
- Offer access to counseling. Counseling can address sexual, emotional, or relationship issues.
- Encourage your child to share his sexual health status with future sexual partners.
- Work with your child's doctor. Develop strategies for reducing complications from an STI.
- Don’t play the blame game. There are some STIs, including hepatitis B and bacterial vaginosis, which may be spread in other ways than through sexual activity. Jumping to conclusions and accusing your child can have a negative impact on your relationship.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website. Available at: http://www.acog.org/ .
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ .
Komaroff AL. Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1999.
MMWR: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2007(56). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/index2007.html.
Last reviewed May 2008 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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