STDs

Sometimes it's difficult to see your child as anything but that: a child. Yet, in many ways, teens today are growing up faster than ever. They learn about violence and sex through the media and their peers, but they rarely have all the facts. That's why it's so important for you to talk to your child about sex, particularly sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Teens are one of the groups most at risk for contracting STDs. You can help your child stay safe just by talking to him or her and sharing some important information about STDs and prevention. Before you tackle this sensitive subject, however, it's important to make sure you not only know what to say, but how and when to say it.

Timing Is Everything

It's never too late to talk to your child about STDs, even if he or she is already a teen. After all, a late talk is better than no talk at all. But the best time to start having these discussions is some time during the preteen or middle school years.

Of course, the exact age varies from child to child: Some kids are more aware of sex at age 9 than others are at age 11. You'll need to read your child's cues - when he or she starts having questions about sex, it's a good time to talk about STDs.

Questions are a good starting point for a discussion. When kids are curious, they're more open to hearing what their parents have to say. Another way to initiate a discussion is to use a media cue, like a TV program or an article in the paper, and ask your child what he or she thinks about it.

The surest way to have a healthy dialogue with your child is to establish lines of communication early on. If parents aren't open to talking about sex or other personal subjects when their kids are young, kids will be a lot less likely to seek Mom and Dad out when they're older and have questions.

Spend time talking with your child from the beginning and it'll be much easier later to broach topics like sex because he or she will feel more comfortable sharing thoughts with you.

Tips for Talking

Here are some things you can do that might make talking about STDs a little easier for both you and your child:

  • Be informed. STDs can be a frightening and confusing subject, so it may help if you read up on STD transmission and prevention. You don't want to add any misinformation, and being familiar with the topic will make you feel more comfortable.
  • Ask your child what he or she already knows about STDs and what else your child would like to learn. Remember, though: Your child may already know a lot more than you realize, although much of that information could be incorrect. Parents need to provide accurate information so their kids can make the right decisions and protect themselves.
  • Ask what your child or teen thinks about sexual scenarios on TV and in movies and use those fictional situations as a lead into talking about safe sex and risky behavior.
  • Encourage your child to raise any fears or concerns he or she might have.
  • Make your child feel that he or she is in charge of this talk, not you, by getting his or her opinion on whatever you discuss. If you let your child's questions lead the way, you'll have a much more productive talk than if you have a particular agenda.
  • Explain that the only sure way to remain STD-free is to not have sex or intimate contact with anyone outside of a committed, monogamous relationship, such as marriage. However, everyone who's having sex should always use a latex condom, preferably with a spermicidal foam, cream, or jelly that contains nonoxynol-9. Although nonoxynol-9 has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia, be aware that it does not protect against infection from other STDs or the virus that causes HIV/AIDS.

Common Questions About STDs

Depending on what your child or teen has heard from friends or the media, his or her questions will probably be fairly straightforward and may include inquiries such as:

  • What are STDS? (An STD is a sexually transmitted disease.)
  • How does someone catch one? (These infections and diseases are spread from one individual to another during anal, oral, or vaginal sex.)
  • What do STDs do to a person's body? (The type of STD determines what kinds of symptoms, if any, a person has. Some STDs - like chlamydia - cause virtually no symptoms, whereas others - like gonorrhea - can cause the person to have discharge from the vagina or penis. If it goes untreated, syphilis causes many different symptoms that can ultimately lead to damage to the internal organs. HPV is an STD that can cause warts in the genital area and can lead to cervical, anal, and penile cancer.)
  • Are STDs curable or do you have them forever? (Both chlamydia and gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotics, but there are infections - like herpes or HIV - that have no cure.)
  • Are people who catch STDs somehow bad? (Anyone who has sex, which includes oral and anal sex, can get a sexually transmitted disease. But getting an STD does not mean that someone is a bad person.)
  • Can you tell that someone has an STD just by looking at him or her? (People can become infected the first time that they have unprotected sex and those they're being intimate with may not even know that they're infected themselves. Although there may be visible signs around the genitals of some people with certain kinds of STDS, like genital warts and herpes, most of the time, there is no way to look at someone fully dressed and know that he or she has an STD.)

Answering any of these questions or others as openly as possible is the best approach. It's up to you to gently correct any misinformation your child may have learned. And always answer questions honestly without relying on euphemisms or overdramatizing anything.

It can be tough to step outside the protective parent role, but try to avoid getting too emotional or preachy. You want your child to know you're there to support and help, not condemn.

Finding Reliable Information

Communicating with your teen may not be simple, but it's necessary. If you're always available to talk, discussions will come easier. Literature from your doctor's office or organizations like Planned Parenthood can answer questions for both you and your child.

And websites like this one (especially the section for teens at www.teenshealth.com), as well as those listed on the Additional Resources tab, discuss STDs and sex in a teen-friendly format. Viewing them together can help you and your child start talking.

You can also turn to your child's school for information. Find out when sexuality will be covered in health or science class and read the texts that will be taught. The parent-teacher association at your child's school may even offer sessions about talking to teens where you can share tips and experiences with other parents.

And don't shy away from discussing STDs or sex out of fear that talking about it will make your teen want to have sex. Informed teens are not more likely to have sex, but they are more likely to practice safe sex.

If you try these tactics and still don't feel comfortable talking to your child about STDs, make sure he or she talks to someone: a doctor, counselor, teacher, member of the clergy, or another family member.

Kids and teens need to know about STDs, and it's better that they get the facts from someone their parents trust instead of discovering them on their own.

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