Planned Parenthood

Helping Teens Delay Having Sex

Helping Teens Delay Having Sex — at a Glance

  • As parents, we can play an important role in helping our teens delay having sex until they are ready.
  • We can understand the social reasons teens choose to have sex or choose to wait.
  • We can help our kids by setting expectations about sexual activity, talking with them, and helping them build self-esteem. 

Delay.JPGAs kids go through puberty, it’s a natural part of their development to think more about sex. Many young teens don’t just think about sex — there is a big increase in sexual activity among teens from the seventh to eighth grade. When young teens become sexually active before they are mature enough to protect themselves and their partners, they are at high risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. 

We can help our teens put off sex until they are ready. In fact, teens often name their parents as the biggest influence in their decisions about sex. 

Here are some questions and answers parents often ask about helping teens delay sexual activity.

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When Do I Start Talking with My Kids About Waiting to Have Sex?

Talking with our kids is important. Teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex. 

Talking with kids about waiting to have sex is best done well before puberty, when thoughts about sexual activity increase. Reading about talking with our kids about sexuality can help us be more comfortable to talk. 

It’s important to convey our values about sex with our kids. Before we talk, we should think about our values and what we’d want for our kids. When do we think it would be acceptable for them to become sexually active? Do we want our teens to be mature enough to handle any possible consequences? Do we want our teens to wait for marriage or be in a committed relationship before having sex? 

We can also think about when and under what conditions we think it would be acceptable for our sons and daughters to engage in other sexual behaviors like kissing and touching. It’s important to be clear about this in our own heads, so that we can send a clear message when we have conversations with our teens.

Why Do Teens Start Having Sex? How Can I Get Them to Wait?

It’s helpful to understand and keep in mind the social reasons teens often cite for having or delaying sex. Research shows that most teens make decisions based on short-term social reasons.

The following are seven common social reasons why teens choose to have sex. Below each reason you will find suggestions for how we can respond to these reasons. We can discuss these reasons with our teens and figure out if any of these reasons play a role in our teens’ thinking. 

1. “I’ll feel more grown up.” 

Many teens don’t like to feel that anyone has control over their lives. As they physically mature and experience increased independence, some teens feel they’re ready for sexual intercourse and that having it will make them even more mature and independent. 

Possible parent responses

  • “I can understand you wanting to feel more grown up. What are some others ways that you can feel grown up without having sex?”
  • “If you have sex and something unexpected happens, like getting pregnant or getting a STD, how would you handle that? Those consequences could impact your future in school or your career and could place hardships on our family.”

2. “I know I would enjoy sex.” 

For many teens, life is about the “right here” and “right now.” Adolescence is a developmental stage that may be full of emotional ups and downs, and it’s not unusual for teens to seek out peers and activities that make them feel good. For some teens, sex may seem like a positive way of feeling fulfilled. Teens have a hard time weighing the short-term benefits —physical pleasure or emotional satisfaction — against the possible, and much more serious, consequences — STDs and unintended pregnancy. 

Possible parent responses

  • “Let’s talk about that. Sex might seem like a good idea right now, but it can have some serious consequences for the future.”
  • “I know that you think it might feel good to have sex. But there are so many other ways to feel good and be close to someone without taking the risk of having sex.”

3. “It’s okay if I have sex because everybody is doing it.” 

Kids have a hard time estimating numbers — especially about people. For example, if we ask teens how many kids go to their school, their estimates might be very different from the real number. In the same way, teens often think that many more of them are sexually active than actually are. 

Possible parent responses

  • “It might seem like everybody’s doing it, but they’re not. On average, teens start having sexual intercourse at 17, and many teens who have had it say that they wished they waited.”
  • “Less than half of all high school students have had sexual intercourse. It is perfectly normal to wait. The fact that everybody may be talking about it doesn’t mean everybody is ‘doing it.’” 

4. “I believe in having sex if I truly love the other person.” / “I want to feel closer to my partner.” / “Having sex is the best way to show my partner how much I care.” 

Many teens believe that they will lose their partner if they don’t have sex. Still others fear that they need to have sex to reassure their partners of their affection. Teens may not consider other ways of sharing affection besides having sexual intercourse. 

Possible parent responses

  • “In a loving relationship, your partner respects your decision not to have sex and does not pressure you.”
  • “Sex can be a special way of sharing love with someone. But you should be loved whether or not you have sex. Let’s think of other ways of sharing love without having sex.”

5. “I know people who had sex at a young age, why can’t I?” / “You had sex at a young age — I can handle the consequences just like you did.” 

Many teens underestimate the risks associated with sex. This may even be true of teens who know people who got pregnant at an early age or experienced other negative consequences of teenage sex. They might not understand the challenges that resulted from teenage parenting for that person, such as financial hardship, family stress, and long-term health problems. Because their brains aren’t fully developed, chances are they aren’t able to realistically think through all the potential risks that having sex poses for themselves and their families. We have to help them do that. 

Possible parent responses

  • “It’s true. I did have sexual intercourse as a teen, so you might find it confusing for me to ask you to wait. But I want to tell you that I really wished I waited longer. I had to go through a lot because of it.”
  • “When I was in middle school I thought that I would stay with my partner forever. I was glad I figured out that I had my whole life ahead of me. I am so happy that I waited to have sex. I got to go to school, get a job, and have money of my own."

6. “If I have sex, I’ll know what it’s like, and I won’t be curious anymore.” 

For many young teens, curiosity plays a large role in seeking instant gratification. Teens have a hard time weighing the short-term benefit, in this case, finding out what sex is like, against the possible, and much more serious, consequences. Again, most teens aren’t able to realistically think through all the potential risks of having sex. We need to help them do that. 

Possible parent responses

  • “It sounds like you are feeling a lot of pressure to know what sex is like. Let’s think about some ways to handle that pressure.”
  • “I can understand why you might be curious, but curiosity is not a good reason to have sex. In our family, sexual activity is a really important decision and I’d like us to talk about that more.” 

7. “Other people will like me more if I have sex.” 

Many young teens believe that they will be more popular with their peers and more attractive to potential partners if they have sex. Because teens tend to be all about the present rather than thinking of future consequences, they may not consider the possible negative social consequences. We can warn our kids about them. 

Possible parent responses

  • “It may seem like sex is a way to become popular, but a lot of kids who have sex are not popular at school, and some are even made fun of or get 'bad' reputations.”
  • “True friends will support your decision not to have sex. True friends don't care whether or not you have had sex. Friendship goes beyond this. But you could lose many so-called friends if you had to deal with a pregnancy or infection.” 

How Can I Help My Teens Deal with Peer Pressure to Have Sex?

Teens are faced with all types of peer pressure, especially when it comes to sex. Here are some common ways our kids hear peer pressure:

  • “Everyone is doing it.” Teens have a strong desire to fit in and many times, do things because they falsely believe that everyone is doing it.
  • “I want to stand out.” Sometimes, a teen’s desire to stand out and have their peers’ admiration is stronger than the desire to conform.
  • “I want to portray an image.” A teen receives lots of messages from lots of different sources that sex is cool, fun, sexy, and a mature or “grown-up” activity.

We can help our teens deal with pressure. Talk with them about the lines they might hear and help them practice responses that feel right to them: 

Lines our kids may hear 

  • "Come on, everybody's tried it." 
  • "If you won't do it, then stop hanging around.”
  • "Go ahead — what's the big deal?" 
  • "We did it once before, so why not do it again?"
  • "You don't want everybody to think you’re a loser."
  • "Don't tell me you're afraid of getting in trouble."
  • “If you really loved me, you would do it.” 

Lines we can suggest our kids use when they are pressured

  • “It’s just not for me."
  • “We are too young for that responsibility.”
  • “My plans for the future are more important than having sex right now.” 
  • “I don’t feel like it.”
  • “Why are you trying so hard when I told you, ‘no’?”
  • “My mom would be really upset.”
  • “I might get sick or pregnant.” 
  • “It’s against my religion.”
  • “NO.”

How Can I Help Build My Teen's Self-Esteem?

Building our children’s self-esteem is an important way to combat peer pressure. People with high self-esteem have a strong inner sense that they’re OK. Teens with high self-esteem feel good about themselves and have confidence in their abilities. They have goals, and they feel satisfaction in their relationships with others. They are also less likely to give in to pressure to have sex before they are ready. 

Here are some ways we can encourage self-esteem in our teens:

  • Give Praise. We can acknowledge our kids’ talents and achievements and praise them. We can praise the person as well as the behavior: “That’s great that you played that so well! I love that you did that.”
  • Praise Effort. We can let our kids know that they don’t always have to “win” or be perfect. We can encourage them to take pride and pleasure in the activity itself. We can be honest that winning makes us feel good. But we can also be clear that it’s not the only thing that matters.
  • Give Kids Choices. Teens feel better about themselves when they are able to make decisions that affect their lives. Whenever possible, we can allow our kids to make choices. This can easily be done with small matters, such as clothing or how to decorate a room. We can also let them help make big decisions that we have to make as a family.
  • Give Kids Chores. Teens can do the dishes, take out the garbage, or care for our pets. Working together is an important part of being able to count on one another. Teens feel better about themselves when they feel they are contributing members of the family. When assigning chores, we can let our teens choose which ones they would prefer to be responsible for.
  • Encourage Teens to Set Realistic Goals. Low self-esteem often results from putting impossible demands on ourselves. We can be realistic about what we expect of our teens. We can help them be realistic, too. Setting expectations too low can also be harmful. We can help our teens set high goals, but not so high that they are unreachable. The key is to be realistic. 
  • Enforce Rules in Private. We should never reprimand our kids in public, especially in front of their friends. This is humiliating and really hurts. It can lower self-esteem and create bad feelings. We can try to enforce rules in private, whenever possible. Setting boundaries is also important.
  • Avoid Making Comparisons. There will nearly always be someone who can do better than our kids at some task. We can teach our teens to use personal goals, not somebody else’s behavior, to measure success. It doesn’t really matter how well other people do. What matters is that our teens reach the goals they set out to achieve, or at least make a sincere effort to achieve them.
  • Take Teens’ Problems Seriously. At times, our teens may tell us about things that upset them. Sometimes, we may think they’re “no big deal.” But problems that seem small to us may be very important to our teens. We can acknowledge our teens’ feelings (“I see this is really making you upset”) and help with problem solving.
  • Take Pride in Our Heritage. How our kids feel about their race or ethnicity can be an important influence on their self-esteem. For example, research shows that young teens who are proud of being African American or Latino tend to feel good about themselves. They have higher levels of self-esteem. This means it is important for parents to help all teens appreciate the positive qualities of their ethnic or racial identities. We can talk with them about important role models and recognize special cultural traditions, qualities, and values. We can involve our teens in activities that will help them learn about their family history and culture.

What Else Can I Do to Help My Teen Stay Healthy?

We can play an important role in helping our teens delay sex until they are mature enough to protect themselves and their partners. In addition to talking with them, building a close relationship with them and helping them set boundaries are also very important. 

Of course, the time will come when our kids do decide to be sexually active. It is just as important for us to be ready to guide them when they do become sexually active — whether or not we think it’s a good idea.

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Helping Teens Delay Having Sex