By Daniel Krowchuk, M.D., General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Expert at Brenner Children’s Hospital  

It’s a fact – one third of 9th graders and two thirds of 12th graders in the US report having had sex. If you’d like your child (girl or boy) to act responsibly and make sound decisions, talking about sex is essential. Ideally, these conversations will occur as natural extensions of discussions you’ve already had about “sensitive” issues. No doubt, you will have discussed the names of body parts in early childhood, “where babies come from,” and the body changes that might occur during puberty. The fact that you talk regularly and openly with your child about all sorts of issues will provide a foundation for a discussion of sex.

It’s very likely that opportunities to discuss the subject will occur before any formal “talk.” A story in the newspaper or on television about sexually transmitted infections or teen pregnancy, or a romantic scene in a movie or on television is a perfect moment to ask what your child thinks and to offer your perspective. However, if this hasn’t happened by the age of 11 or 12 (depending on their level of maturity), it’s time.

It’s wise to schedule a time for the talk – trying to begin the discussion when your child is involved in homework or another activity may not be well received. You might say, “There are some things I’d like to discuss with you – no, you’re not in trouble. When would be a good time for us to talk?” Prepare for the talk, thinking in advance of what you’re hoping to accomplish. You won’t be able to address everything in one session. This is just the beginning and you’ll want to build upon your discussion in the future.

So, how do you break the ice? There’s no single right approach. It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable with the subject. “I’d like to talk with you about sex. I know this may be embarrassing and difficult, but it’s important.” Again, if a story appears in the newspaper or on television, use it.

Ultimately, you’ll want to share your values and perspectives. However, ask what your child thinks. Understanding their beliefs will help shape and direct the discussion. You’ll want to impart the message that involvement in a sexual relationship is a big step best delayed until one is older and more prepared emotionally. As important as your views are, avoid a soapbox speech. If the discussion becomes entirely one-sided, your child may feel that there is no opportunity for future communication.

As much as we hope that teens will delay becoming involved in a sexual relationship, in the end they make the decision. For this reason, it’s wise to prepare for the unexpected. Help your child understand the responsibilities and consequences associated with having sex, including not engaging in unprotected sex. Make it very clear that you are willing to talk with them about anything and that you love them – no matter what.

Last, parents may worry that talking about sex will encourage it. However, research does not support this concern. In some ways, talking with your teen about sex is like to teaching them to drive. Would you send them out on the road without proper guidance? The education won’t cause an accident but a failure to prepare may.