Parenting Teens Who May Be Sexually Active — at a Glance
- As parents, we can help our teens stay safe and healthy.
- We can support our teens' healthy relationships.
- We can help them identify relationships that are unhealthy.
- We can help them stay on track to achieve their life goals.
Whether we like it or not, many teens are having sex. By the age of 19, seven out of 10 teens have had intercourse. One out of four teen girls has a sexually transmitted infection. And every year, seven out of 100 U.S. teen girls become pregnant. Parents of sexually active teens can make a difference for them. We can help them be safer.
Here are some questions parents who know that their teens are sexually active — or those who suspect their teens might be — commonly ask.
Can I Make a Difference in the Life of my Sexually Active Teens?
Yes, parents can definitely make a difference. Teens who have positive and supportive relationships with their parents benefit from it. They have fewer sex partners than other teens. And they use condoms more consistently. Teens also benefit when their parents give them reliable guidance about the risks and responsibilities of sex. They take fewer risks than other teens.
Ultimately, teens make their own decisions about their sex lives. But we can still help them make good decisions about their health and relationships.
How Can I Help my Teens Make Good Decisions About Their Relationships and Sex?
First, we need to be as loving as possible when we learn that our sons or daughters are having sex. Some teens worry about how their parents will react. Some feel embarrassed to bring it up. Some just aren't sure about how to talk about it. So it can take courage for teens to be open with their parents about having sex.
When teens do communicate with us about sex, it shows that they want to have an open and honest relationship with us. The most important thing for us to do is to listen, no matter how we feel about what we’re hearing.
Once it’s out in the open, parents can make a difference. We can help our teens think about their relationships. We can talk with them about the relationship responsibilities they have. We can encourage them to always use birth control and practice safer sex. And we can reassure them that we will continue provide loving homes and work to build and maintain a good relationship with them.
How Can I Support Healthy Teen Relationships?
We can help our teens understand what goes into healthy relationships. We can help them to expect good communication, respect, trust, fairness, honesty, and equality. Here are some questions we can ask our teens to help them figure out if their relationships are healthy:
- Do you talk openly about your feelings with each other?
- Are you able to work through disagreements?
- Do you listen to each other’s ideas?
- Are you proud of one another?
- Do you trust each other?
- Do you appreciate each others’ need for friends and family?
- Do you both admit when you’re wrong?
- Do you both forgive mistakes?
- Do you both compromise?
- Do you always feel safe around each other?
We can discuss these questions with our sons or daughters and encourage them to discuss them with their boyfriends or girlfriends. We all want to feel safe and loved. Anyone who can honestly answer “yes” to all of these questions is probably in a healthy relationship.
How Can I Help my Teens Know When They Are in Unhealthy or Abusive Relationships?
We can help our teens understand what unhealthy relationships are like. They are about the lack of communication, respect, trust, fairness, honesty, and equality that mark healthy relationships. Here are some questions we can talk about with our teens to see if these qualities are missing in their relationship:
- Does one of you lack respect for the other?
- Does one of you make the other feel ugly or stupid?
- Does one of you pressure the other into doing uncomfortable things?
- Does one of you ignore or make fun of the other’s feelings or ideas?
- Does one of you put down the other’s race, family, culture, religion, income, or neighborhood?
- Does one of you lack trust in the other?
- Does one of you always blame the other when something goes wrong?
- Does one of you insist that you only need each other and you don’t need other friends?
- Does one of you accuse the other of cheating?
- Does one of you keep secrets?
- Does one of you make most of the decisions in your relationship?
- Does one of you refuse to talk about feelings and worries?
- Does one of you keep the other from saying what’s on your mind?
- Does one of you give the other the silent treatment?
If our teens are in unhealthy relationships, we can support their efforts to change or end them. If they are in abusive relationships, we need to help them end their relationships safely.
If we want our teens to avoid unhealthy relationships, we can discourage them from dating anyone much younger or older than themselves. When teens date someone more than two years older or younger than themselves, they have a higher chance of having sex, an unintended pregnancy, and of having unequal relationships.
What Are the Signs of Abuse or Dating Violence?
Unhealthy relationships sometimes lead to abuse, including dating violence. As parents, we can look for signs of abuse. If our teens or their partners have any of these signs, they may be in an abusive relationship:
- not spending time with family or friends
- alcohol or drug use
- fear of their partners
- extreme jealousy or controlling behavior
- angry and emotional outbursts
- mood swings
- yelling, cursing, or other verbal abuse towards each other
- use of threats or intimidation
If our teens are in relationships with these signs, they need our support to end their relationships safely. When teens in abusive relationships find it difficult to leave them, professional guidance — from a school social worker, therapist, or clergyperson — may be helpful.
How Can I Help my Teen Understand the Impact Sex Can Have on Their Plans for the Future?
We have to let our teens know that having sex — especially unprotected sex — can have serious, negative consequences. It can lead to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Unintended pregnancy can derail education and career plans — for young women and young men. Pregnant teens are more likely to drop out of high school, be poor, and be unhappy than girls who don’t get pregnant. Sexually transmitted infections can cause discomfort, infertility, and life-threatening illness such as genital cancers and HIV/AIDS. Our teens need to know the basics of reproduction, birth control, and safer sex. In order to be helpful we must know about these subjects, too.
We must give our teens clear, strong messages that it is not okay to have unprotected sex. We must help them understand that people who care about each other do not put each other at risk. We must encourage them to always practice safer sex and to use birth control if they are having vaginal intercourse. We can offer to get them condoms and make arrangements to get them birth control. We can take them for screenings for sexually transmitted infections at least once a year or whenever they think they may have been exposed.
Most of all, we need to help them build self-esteem so that they will want to take good care of themselves and stand up for themselves when necessary. We can do that by giving them credit for their talents and accomplishments and by avoiding criticism and punishment. Listening to them about their goals for the future will help them build self-esteem.
Understanding our teens’ dreams and plans for their future strengthens our relationships with them. Then we can talk with them about how the risks they take may affect their dreams for the future. To protect their future, we must do everything we can to get them make a commitment to always practice safer sex and use birth control. It will greatly reduce the chance that unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection become obstacles to the future they want for themselves.
What Can I Do if my Teen Won't Practice Safer Sex or Use Birth Control?
Some teens have lots of excuses for not using protection. Here are some of the excuses teens use and some things we can say to them:
If our teens say, "Birth control is too much of a hassle to get."
We can say, "I can take you to a health center and get it with you."
If our teens say, "I don't always have a condom with me when I'm about to have sex."
We can say, "You should always have a couple with you. If you forget your birth control and neither of you have a condom, have sex another time. Don't take chances, not even once."
If our teens say, "I don't always have money for condoms."
We can say, "There are lots of places — schools, clinics — to get free condoms. And we can buy you a supply so you have some when you’re broke.”
If our teens say, “If I’ve been drinking, I sometimes forget to use condoms.”
We can say, “You have to avoid risky situations like that. Too much drinking or using other drugs can cloud your judgment and make you take risks you know you shouldn’t take, especially if you are being pressured.”
If our teens say, “If I suggest we use a condom, my partner might think I have a disease.”
We can say, “People who care about each other protect each other every time they have sex. Most sexually active people do not know when they are infected, so it is very important for people to use protection every time.”
If our teens say, “Sex doesn’t feel as good with condoms.”
We can say, “Knowing you won’t cause a pregnancy or get an infection will let you be more relaxed.”
If our teens say, “My partner refuses to use a condom.”
We can say, “You have right and a responsibility to yourself to say no to anyone who cares so little for you that they won’t use protection. He’s not showing you respect by refusing to wear one. I’d like you to make a promise to yourself and to me that you won’t put your future at risk because someone is pressuring you.”