Talking about sex with your teen can be awkward, but we should do it anyway.
A recent survey in Pediatrics found that more than one-third of doctors aren't strongly recommending the HPV vaccine to their preteen patients. That's a lot of doctors, but it's way more patients.
HPV is the fastest-growing STI in the United States.
The HPV vaccines, known as Gardasil and Cervarix, can protect against some of the most common strains, including some that may lead to cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine was introduced in the United States in 2006, and since then, there has been a 56% reduction of the vaccine-covered strains in girls ages 14-19. It's now recommended for all children (not just girls) ages 11 and older.
When properly administered, the vaccine is nearly 100% effective at preventing cervical, vaginal, and vulvar precancers, and Gardasil prevents about 90% of genital warts.
If it's already made such an impact, why isn't it being recommended?
It's not out of fear of the vaccine or a belief that it's unsafe. It's because doctors fear parental pushback and often don't believe their preteen and teen patients are having sex.
Basically, doctors aren't recommending the vaccine to patients because they don't want to talk about sex.
The Victorians would be so proud.
Less than 2% of preteens under age 12 are sexually active, but that number increases significantly throughout adolescence. By age 16, 48% of teens are sexually active.
Kids want to talk to their parents about it. Seriously.
A 2012 survey found that nearly 9 in 10 teens said it would be easier to "postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents."
Parents want to have these conversations too.
If both parents and teens want to talk to each other, why don't we?
Because it's awkward. Because we feel unqualified. Because we assume that our kids will get that education at school. Unfortunately, sex education still looks like like this in a lot of schools:
A huge part of parenting is talking to your kids about tough topics, even if it's a bit uncomfortable. Here are some ways to start that conversation.
1. Use television shows, movies, and current events to start a conversation.
We often imagine The Talk as something scary, solemn, and heavily planned out. You intercept your teen as they walk in the door after school, and they know immediately. They start mumbling. You start talking about how you're not a regular mom, you're a cool mom. At some point, you both stop making eye contact.
It doesn't need to be that way. You can use media to open the door, even if that means you just point out articles in the newspaper or ask how they felt about certain moments in their favorite shows.
2. Start early.
You know how we start learning languages with the alphabet? Talking about sex is like that. You start easy and work your way up.
When children are young, talk to them about boundaries. Talk about what bodies do, and normalize those things. Did you find your first-grader with a tampon up their nose, pretending to be a walrus? Laugh (and take the tampon out of their nose) and tell them what tampons are for. It's a lot less scary to get your period the first time if you actually know what a period is.
3. Don't think of it as The Talk.
"The Talk" has become such a loaded phrase that all parents within a mile radius instantly groan when someone says "Yeah, we had The Talk last night."
If we stop thinking about it as just one conversation — as The Talk — we start to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality. This goes right along with starting early. If you talk to your kids regularly about their bodies and relationships, it's a lot less scary for everyone.
4. Come with your own set of questions for your child's doctor.
Health care is a team effort, especially if your children are very young. Come prepared with a set of questions for your doctor. Are you curious about the HPV vaccine? Talk with them about it. If you start the conversation with them about your child's sexual health, they may be more comfortable discussing whether the vaccine — or other health measures — are right for your child.
But remember — your child may want to talk to their doctor alone. It doesn't mean they don't trust you, it just means that they may feel a bit awkward having that conversation with a group of people. Trust that your doctor will let you know if your child is being hurt by themselves or by another person.
5. When you don't know, don't fake it.
Repeat after me: It's OK to not know all the answers. If you don't know the answer to a question or if you aren't certain, look it up together! There is no shame in not knowing, and research is often being updated, so what you learned as a teen might not be up-to-date.
I'm not saying it's always going to be easy.
But if you could help your child stay healthy and have healthy relationships, wouldn't you want to? We've come a long way in preventing HPV, treating STIs, and preventing and treating HIV. So let's not let our fear of sex hold us back.\n\n
Let's show those doctors that we're ready to talk about it.