Teens and Sex: Can We Talk?
Do you think your teen is having sex? Many parents would say no.

The harsh reality is that only about half of them would be right.

Children are engaging in sex at younger ages than in the past, experts say. Combine that with a steady increase in sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers and a rising teen birth rate, and you have a growing need for parents to educate their children.

"Comprehensive sex education really makes a difference," said Dr. Glennah Trochet, public health officer of Sacramento County, Calif. "People always think teens aren't influenced by their parents, but studies show that what their parents tell them, especially if they are very clear, really does influence young people."

So, parents: Start talking.

Even if children are not sexually active, "they probably are exposed to peer groups who are sexually active," said Dr. Angela Rosas, a pediatric gynecologist with Children's Specialists Medical Group of Sacramento, Calif. "Questions will come up."

Some advice from the pros on having these critical conversations.

  • Start early: Age 10 or 11 is not too young to start the discussions, said Dr. Julius Licata, a clinical psychologist in Orefield, Pa., who runs teencentral.net, a Web site that offers teens anonymous access to expert counseling and advice.

  • If questions haven't arisen by preadolescence, a parent needs to initiate the conversation. You may be uncomfortable talking about sex. That's OK. Acknowledge your discomfort while telling your child that this is too important a topic to let embarrassment get in the way.

  • There's no such thing as the perfect time. Look for "spontaneous" teachable moments. Perhaps you'll notice a pregnant teen at your child's school or happen upon a love scene in a movie while watching with your kids.

  • Consider getting a book to help start the conversation. Take time to scan the contents and be sure the book reflects your values. Read it before giving it to your child so you're not caught off-guard.

  • Be clear about your expectations and your family's stance on abstinence and sex, and the reasoning behind it, experts say. Start by saying, "I don't think you're ready," then be prepared to state your reasons. Expect to be challenged. Avoid being defensive, hostile or angry.
Online Advice

Three sites with helpful information: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; TalkingWithKids.org and Parenting.com