Sexually Transmitted Infections and Teens: Parents Hold the Key to Prevention

When it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), many parents may feel uncomfortable talking with their teen. This is hardly surprising, as the “sex talk” tends to be the last thing most parents want to discuss! Teens don’t want to bring it up, either. Many assume their parents will “think I’m doing it,” will refuse to discuss it, or will become angry.

Teens might get information on STIs from school health classes, yet many school curriculums don’t cover the topic completely or avoid the subject. Teens tend to get their information from friends, unreliable internet sources or from rumors.

STI prevention is an important topic to discuss one-on-one with your teen. Teens account for a majority of new STI cases, despite new advances in detection and treatment. By the age of 25, half of teens will have contracted an STI. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise, and many teens are not aware that they have the disease and are spreading it to others. One single instance of unprotected sex could have dangerous and lifelong consequences for a teen.

To address these concerns, parents should consider themselves their teen’s best source of accurate information about how to prevent, test and treat STIs. Here’s how to start:

Our own education as parents is KEY. Before we begin talking to our teens about pregnancy prevention and STIs, we must get the most accurate information to educate our teen and ourselves. Two excellent sources are TeenSource.org and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One extremely important aspect of self-education, and a parent’s educating of their child, is to understand differences in gender and sexuality. Anyone who engages in any type of sexual contact is at risk for STIs.

Stress that prevention is simple. If a teen is engaging in any type of sexual behavior, a condom must be used each and every time. To go a step further and help protect against pregnancy, dual protection—a condom and birth control—is recommended.

Not only is prevention simple, it should be easy for a teen to access STI and pregnancy prevention methods. Condoms are free at many health clinics and other places in our community, and can be even delivered through the Free Condom Project.

STI testing is widely available at many clinics, schools and neighborhood resource centers. Testing can be done confidentially or anonymously and, in Ohio, teens as young as 13 are able to be tested without a parent’s consent.

Start the conversation. One helpful way to ease into it might be to say, “I just saw an article on the web…” or “I saw a statistic…” You could share these sites with your teen and tell them you’re open for questions after.

Be “askable.” This does not mean that you are saying that it’s okay to have sex or giving your teen permission to engage in risky behavior. It means you are open to the concerns and feelings that your teen is experiencing. Answer any questions, no matter how difficult. This relationship will not only help prevent pregnancy and STIs, but will lay the foundation for frank discussions about drug use, friendships, relationships and other minefields of teenage life.

Use your teen’s primary care physician for help and support. Often, the physician’s office is a safe space for teens to have a frank discussion about health issues. Encourage your teen to ask questions and discuss topics about sexuality such as STIs and birth control.

While “the talk” and the sticky subject of STI prevention is no parent’s dream, helping your teen stay safe and healthy is a lifelong responsibility. Since so many teens are at risk for contracting STIs, parents have a unique and essential opportunity to engage their teens in open, honest and frank discussions about STI prevention. There are many resources at your disposal for education, prevention, testing and treatment that can lower their risk.

Testing is available at Nationwide Children’s Care Connection clinics, located in several central Ohio schools, Adolescent Medicine clinics or at Columbus Public Health.

Sarah Saxbe
Sarah Saxbe, MS, MSW, LISW-S, coordinates community outreach and marketing for Nationwide Children's Hospital Teen and Pregnant Program, BC4Teens birth control clinic, and the Ohio Better Birth Outcomes collaborative.

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