Parent influence most important factor in teens decisions about sex

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 3:20 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY —It's a conversation perhaps few enjoy: Parents talking to their kids about sex.

Terse sentences and uncomfortable side glances from all parties turn into palpable relief when the conversation ends. Yet despite the potential for discomfort, research shows the importance of parents in their children's decisions about sexuality.

"It is a little awkward at first but is does get easier," Jani Cone Driggs, mother of a 9-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy, said.

Talking 2 Teens, a website launched in May by the Utah County Health Department, provides parents with tips and suggestions for addressing this topic in age-appropriate ways.

Parental communication with teens about sex is correlated with teens delaying becoming sexually active , among other positive outcomes, according to research reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents have the most influence over their teen's decisions about sex, with 41 percent of girls 12-19 reporting that they listened to their parent's advice most and 35 percent of boys of the same age, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

This can be compared to a parent's influence over their child's approach to food, according to Machiel P. Klerk, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City. Hunger is a natural instinct, he said, and parents' attitudes and actions can influence whether or not their child has a healthy relationship to food.

Similarly, young people will have sexual feelings no matter what, he said, and parents play a vital role in helping their children navigate those urges. The body is ready for sexuality earlier than the brain is, he said, and often peers, movies and advertisements put them on track for a relationship with sexuality that is not healthy.

Who's talking?

More parents think they are talking to their teens than actually are, according to a study by Family Circle, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Latino Family and Adolescent Health. The study measured 1,046 teens from 15-18, and a parent of each of those teens. Findings showed that 89.7 percent of parents said they they had talked to their children about sexuality, while 83.6 percent their teens agreed.

The Talking 2 Teens website was created using a federal health and human services grant for abstinence education, according to Sofia Ybarra, a health educator for the Utah County Health Department.

The most important aspect of the website is to get parents involved in conversations about sex with their children, Ybarra said.

"The website isn't there to say, 'This is what you should be teaching your kids.' It is there to say, 'Please be involved with your kids and teach your own values.'"

They also encourage parents to normalize "the talk" by broaching it during natural, teaching moments, talking about the subject in small doses and in a conversations.

The Driggs family did this with their children, starting when they were first learning where their nose and eyes were. They started teaching their children the proper name and function of each body part and have kept up communication with their children ever since.

"It just naturally led to the next discussion," Driggs said.

She and her husband Jonathan grew up in families who did not discuss sex much and decided they wanted things to be different for their children. They read books, consulted other parents and read up on the web.

"Then it just dawned on me. I know what to say," Jonathan Driggs said, adding that he learned to follow his intuition when speaking with his children about sexuality.

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