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.
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.
They taught their kids early on that every action has either a positive or negative consequence, Jani Driggs said. They talk to their kids about goals and set out the positives of abstaining from sex before marriage and the consequences of not. They then let their kids figure things out from there.
Talking 2 teens features "put it to practice" links where parents can ask themselves open-ended questions regarding their own values and approaches toward talking to their teen about sex. Parents can also take a knowledge pretest to gauge what they know about talking to their child about sex.
The Health Department will continue to monitor rates of teen pregnancy and see ifhe rates are impacted by the website, Ybarra said.
Many parents think they have no influence on their child's decisions about sex, according to Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Programs like this website help parents know that their voice is important, he said, which is a good thing.
"Job number one is convincing parents that they matter. That their sons and daughters want to hear from them even if they don't act like it."
In addition to websites like Talking 2 Teens, parents have a number of community resources they can use to talk to their kids. The federal government has listed effective programs when it comes to delaying teen pregnancy, he said, and most talk about the value of delaying sex and the importance of sex education.
"It's good to know — and I say this as a parent — it's good to know that you matter, and particulary on a topic that you didn't think that you mattered," Albert said.
Unlike talking to teens about things that should never happen, he said, such as doing drugs or driving drunk, most people understand that they will have sexual relationships at some point in their lives.
Some parents may worry that by educating their teenagers about sex they may be giving their "tacit approval" for their child to engage in sex.
"That's a fair question and a reasonable concern," Albert said.
However, he said, research shows that in general children delay sex initiation when their parents talk to their kids about sex, in part because of the closer relationships that develop as part of the openness.
If this conversation was about their child's education or helping them reach their goals, he said, there would be no doubt that parents play a positive role.
"It's somewhat puzzling to ponder why parents sort of lack the belief or courage that they matter on these important topics."
Parents can also converse with other parents about the questions their kids are asking, and use each other to practice what they might say to their kids, according to Cory Fehlberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City. They should also think about what they wish their parents would have told them as teens, she said.
It is OK for parents to admit that they feel uncomfortable, Fehlberg said. They also should plan to be surprised and caught off guard at times. When that happens, she said, they can always come back and continue the conversation, even if it is years later.
"I think that parents should know that they can always come back to kids. That it's not a one-time deal."
It's never too late to start talking to your kids about sex, the Driggs said, and it is important to create a comfortable environment for children so they feel like they can share and ask questions.
"Just talk. Don't worry about saying something wrong," Jonathan Driggs said.
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