Guide to Helping your Teen Avoid STD's and Pregnancy
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Teens and Sex: How to Help Your Kids Dodge Pregnancy and STDs

By: Lindsay Lyon

There's no denying it. Teens are doing the deed. About 70 percent of teenagers have had sex by their 19th birthdays, and about 14 percent lose their virginity before turning 15, surveys suggest. A result: approximately three quarters of a million teen pregnancies each year. And while today's teens overall report having safer sex than did those in years past, about a quarter of girls ages 14 to 19 are infected with at least one of four common STDs (human papillomavirus, chlamydia, herpes, and the parasitic infection trichomoniasis), federal health officials reported in March. "[Teens] are swimming in higher prevalence waters," says John Douglas Jr., director of the STD-prevention division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says that 15-to-24-year-olds account for half of the 19 million STD cases each year.
Adolescents are ultimately responsible for their own actions, of course. Yet parents can do a lot to guide their kids through the treacherous tides of teen lust-without insisting on a chastity belt. A powerful, if dreaded, tool doesn't cost a cent: open dialogue about sexual issues. That's dialogue, experts stress, not a one-time "sex talk." Repeated conversations about things like orgasm or condoms appear to make teens feel closer to parents and more able to discuss tricky topics like sex with them, Mark Schuster and colleagues reported this year in Pediatrics. And kids who've been surveyed say they prefer to have parents, rather than any other source, provide their sexual education, says Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston and author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask).

Broaching the subject may be awkward, but gradually it will get easier for both parent and child, Schuster assures parents. His main advice: Start well before kids hit puberty, and don't shy away from questions or you'll encourage them to turn elsewhere for information. Research, he says, suggests that the kids most likely to delay sex, and practice it safely once they start, are those who think about their future-full of dreams and ambitions-and whose parents communicate with them about sexuality. "Parents can have a much greater influence than they realize," says Schuster.

"A big part of adolescence is becoming more aware of and interested in sex," says Schuster. Like it or not, "we can't hide from that."

As for protection, what's best is what Schuster calls the "belt and suspenders" approach: condoms to thwart STDs and a hormonal contraceptive for girls as a second-line defense against unwanted pregnancy. More important, teens need to know how to use these methods properly; condoms, for example, expire.


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