Few parents want to face the idea that their teens are having sex — but research shows that many teens are sexually active by high school, potentially putting themselves at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When it comes to teens and sex, the key is discussing the importance of contraception before sexual activity begins.
Talk about safe sex with your teen even if he or she identifies as gay. He or she may still engage in heterosexual activities, and is at risk of STIs regardless of the partner with whom he or she engages in sexual activity.
When broaching the topic of teens and sex, it's never too late to talk about abstinence. Whether you feel strongly that sex before marriage is wrong or you simply want your teen to postpone sex until he or she is more mature, explain your feelings to your teen. If you share the reasons behind your beliefs, your teen may be more likely to understand and adopt your values.
Also ask your teen to think about his or her own values and hopes for the future — and consider how sex might affect them. Explain that:
- Teens and sex can be a risky combination
- There are many nonsexual ways he or she can show feelings for someone
- The only sure way to prevent teen pregnancy and STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes and HIV, is to abstain from sex — oral, vaginal and anal
Discussing birth control options
Understanding birth control methods is an important life skill for everyone. Whether your teen decides to have sex or wait, make sure your teen knows how to prevent pregnancy and protect himself or herself from sexually transmitted infections.
Stress the importance of always using condoms during sex, even if your teen is using a second form of contraception.
- Consistent and correct use of condoms is the most effective way for sexually active teens to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections.
- Condoms help prevent pregnancy.
Prescription birth control
Various prescription contraceptives can help prevent teen pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists encourages adolescents to consider long-acting reversible contraception first — including intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants — as these options are highly effective with little thought required.
Prescription birth control options that help prevent teen pregnancy include:
- Intrauterine devices (Mirena, Skyla, Paragard)
- A contraceptive implant (Nexplanon)
- Combination birth control pills
- The contraceptive patch (Xulane)
- The vaginal ring (NuvaRing)
- The contraceptive injection (Depo-Provera)
Your teen will need to see a doctor to get a prescription for these types of contraceptives. Before scheduling the appointment, find out if she would prefer to see a female doctor.
Explain to your teen that the doctor likely will:
- Review medical history
- Go over the risks and benefits of different types of birth control
The doctor will also conduct a pelvic exam if your teen chooses an intrauterine contraception method.
Make sure your teen understands that prescription birth control isn't a replacement for condoms. Prescription birth control helps prevent pregnancy, but it doesn't offer protection from sexually transmitted infections.
Emergency birth control
Explain to your teen that it's always a good idea to make a decision about birth control before having sex. However, emergency contraception — such as the morning-after pill levonorgestrel (Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, Take Action) or ulipristal (ella) — can help prevent pregnancy if your teen doesn't plan ahead or contraception fails.
- Plan B One-Step is available over-the-counter without a prescription.
- Next Choice One Dose and Take Action, are available over-the-counter for those age 17 and older and by prescription for girls younger than age 17.
- Ella is available only with a prescription from your doctor or health care provider.
Make sure your teen understands that emergency contraception must be started as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. The sooner the pills are taken, the more likely they are to be effective, though they may be taken up to 5 days (120 hours) after unprotected intercourse.
Natural family planning
If use of contraception goes against your values, you might consider talking to your teen about natural family planning, which involves abstaining from sex during a woman's most fertile days.
Keep this in mind:
- Natural family planning methods aren't as effective as prescription birth control and don't offer protection from sexually transmitted infections.
- Effective use of natural family planning methods requires diligence and planning — and teen sex is often unplanned.
- Teen girls commonly have irregular menstrual cycles, which can make it difficult to assess fertility signs.
Don't be afraid that talking to your teen about contraception will encourage him or her to have sex. Your teen is likely curious about sex and contraception, whether or not you bring up the topic. By being open and honest, you can help your teen make informed decisions and act more responsibly when he or she decides to have sex — whether it's now or years in the future.
If you're having trouble talking to your teen about contraception, ask your teen's doctor for help. He or she may offer advice on how to talk to your teen and accurately answer questions about contraception.
Encouraging responsible behavior
Teens may lack the maturity to properly and consistently use certain types of contraception. If your teen is thinking about using prescription birth control, make sure to explain the following to help her select a method:
- Frequency of use and convenience. For instance, combination birth control pills need to be taken at the same time every day, while NuvaRing is worn for three weeks at a time.
- Tracking doctor's appointments and birth control use. Explain the importance of keeping track of doctor's appointments and discuss how to build birth control use part of her routine — such as by taking a daily combination birth control pill at the same time your teen gets ready for bed.
- Missed doses. Make sure your daughter understands what to do if she misses a dose or suspects that she may be pregnant.
If your teen is considering becoming sexually active, you might also provide practical tips — such as keeping condoms in a wallet or purse. Explain to your teen that use of alcohol and other drugs may affect his or her judgment and increase the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
The bottom line
Talking about sex and contraception with your teen isn't easy. However, your guidance can help your teen make informed choices that help protect his or her sexual health.