Talking to Your Kids About STDs
May 10, 2004
Sometimes it's difficult to see your child as anything but that: a child. Yet in many ways teens today are growing up faster than ever. They learn about violence and sex through the media and their peers, but they rarely have all the facts. That's why it's so important for you to talk to your child about sex, particularly sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Teens are one of the groups most at risk for contracting STDs. You can help your child stay safe just by talking to him and sharing some important information about STDs and prevention. Before you tackle this sensitive subject, however, make sure you know what to say and how and when to say it.
Timing Is Everything
It's never too late to talk to your child about STDs, even if he's already a teen. After all, a late talk is better than no talk at all. But the best time to start having these discussions is some time during the preteen or middle school years. Of course, the exact age varies from child to child: some kids are more aware of sex at age 9 than others are at age 11. You need to read your child's cues - when he starts having questions about sex, it's a good time to talk about STDs.
Questions are a good starting point for a discussion. When your child is curious, he's more open to hearing what you have to say. Another way to initiate a discussion is to use a media cue, like a TV program or an article in the paper, and ask your child what he thinks about it.
The surest way to have a healthy dialogue with your kids is to establish lines of communication early on. If you aren't open to talking about sex or other personal subjects when your child is young, he'll be a lot less likely to seek you out when he's older and has questions. Spend time talking with your child from the beginning and it'll be much easier later to broach topics like sex because he'll feel more comfortable sharing his thoughts with you.
What to Say About STDs
STDs can be a frightening and confusing subject, so you need to be informed when you talk with your child. It may help if you read up on STD transmission and prevention. You don't want to add any misinformation, and being familiar with the topic will make you feel more comfortable.
A good first step is asking your child what he already knows about STDs and what else he would like to learn. Encourage your child to raise any fears or concerns he might have. Make him feel that he's in charge of this talk, not you, by getting his opinion on whatever you discuss. You might also ask what your child or teen thinks about sexual scenarios on TV and in movies and use those fictional situations as a lead into talking about safe sex and risky behavior. If you let his questions lead the way, you'll have a much more productive talk than if you have a particular agenda.
Remember: your child may already know a lot more than you realize, although much of that information could be incorrect. You need to provide accurate information so he can make the right decisions and protect himself. And don't shy away from discussing STDs or sex out of fear that talking about it will make your teen want to have sex. Informed teens are not more likely to have sex, but they are more likely to practice safe sex.
This time might be good to discuss STD prevention with your child. Explain that the only sure way to remain STD-free is to not have sex or intimate contact with anyone. Any teen who is having sex should always use a latex condom, preferably with a spermicidal foam, cream, or jelly that contains nonoxynol-9. While nonxynol-9 has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia, it is important to note that nonoxynol-9 does not protect against AIDS.
Common Questions About STDs
Depending on what your child or teen has heard from friends or the media, his questions will probably be fairly straightforward. What are STDS? What do they do? How does someone catch one? How can you cure them? He might be afraid that he can contract an STD from holding hands, hugging, or sharing a glass with someone. Or that, like AIDS, all STDs are ultimately devastating or fatal. Your child may also wonder if people who catch STDs are somehow bad, or whether you can tell a person is infected just by looking at him or her.
It's up to you to gently correct any misinformation your child may have learned. Always answer questions honestly without relying on euphemisms or overdramatizing anything. It can be tough to step outside the protective parent role, but try to avoid getting too emotional or preachy. You want your child to know you're there to support and help him, not condemn him.
Tips for Talking About STDs
Communicating with your teen may not be simple, but it's necessary. If you're always available to talk, discussions will come easier. Literature from your doctor's office or organizations like Planned Parenthood can answer questions for both you and your child. And Web sites like this one (www.psychlinks.ca/pages/teens.htm and www.psychlinks.ca/pages/sex.htm) and www.Iwannaknow.org from the American Social Health Association, discuss STDs and sex in a teen-friendly format. Viewing them together can help you and your child start talking.
You can also turn to your child's school for information. Find out when sexuality will be covered in health or science class and read the texts that will be taught. Your child's school's parent-teacher association may even offer sessions about talking to teens where you can share tips and experiences with other parents.
If you try these tactics and still don't feel comfortable talking to your child about STDs, make sure he talks to someone: a doctor, counselor, teacher, member of the clergy, or another family member. He needs to know about STDs, and it's better that he get the facts from someone you trust instead of discovering them on his own.