But parents can and should fill the sex education gap, says Laura Widman, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.
“The Supreme Court ruling makes it more important than ever that we equip teens with all the tools they need to prevent unintended pregnancies,” said Widman, who researches adolescent sexual health. “In all states, and especially in states that are not providing comprehensive sex education in schools, parents have a critical role to play in discussing pregnancy prevention with their kids.”
She understands parents’ hesitance to talk to their kids on the important yet awkward topics of sex and birth control, however. “Oftentimes that anxiety of, ‘I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to screw up my kid permanently’ becomes such a barrier that parents say nothing.”
We talked to Widman and others about how parents who would like their teens to use birth control when they become sexually active can best approach the topic.
Start early and talk often
Toss out any presuppositions of having “the talk” with your children. Building a relationship of openness and support about all aspects of sexuality means having many age-appropriate discussions with your kids, experts said.
“I think it’s never too early to for a parent to start talking with their kids in developmentally appropriate ways about sexual health and safety,” said Annie Hoopes, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine physician-researcher specializing in sexual and reproductive health care. “So for very young kids, it’s talking about understanding your body and who’s allowed to have access to your body and how to communicate your body’s needs.”
As kids reach puberty, she added, the conversations can get more technical and focus on issues like sexual intimacy and how to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
How parents can provide stability as teens grapple with stress and uncertainty
Waiting for the exact right moment to bring up these issues is also a mistake. “There’s never going to be a perfect time or a right time to discuss things related to sex,” Widman said. “So just start. You can use an opportunity when you hear about something in the news, and you just sort of start and keep it short and sweet.”
Not talking to your teens can leave them with the wrong impression about where you stand, said Julie Maslowsky, a developmental psychologist and associate professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In our research, we have seen many instances where a teen assumes their parent is opposed to them using contraception, and the parent is actually supportive but just hasn’t had conversations with their teen about it yet,” she said.
In her research involving parents of pregnant teens, “often what we hear is, ‘I was going to talk with her about birth control or we were going to go to the doctor. It was on my list,’ ” Maslowsky said. “And so I would say, ‘Do it early. Do it way before your concerns that there is an imminent risk of pregnancy or unhealthy consequences of sex.’ ”
It might take time to find a method that the adolescent is comfortable with, which is another reason to start talking early about birth control. “Giving the teen some options to start learning about and asking questions about contraception before the time that they need it can provide a really nice foundation,” Hoopes said.
Teen pregnancy has been trending downward since 1991; in 2021, there were 14.4 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, according to provisional data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites fewer teens having sex and improved usage of birth control as likely reasons for the decline but also points out that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is among the highest in the developed world.
If your child is in high school, there is a good likelihood they are having sex. According to 2017 research from the Guttmacher Institute, 20 percent of high school freshman had had sexual intercourse, rising to 57 percent of seniors.
How to talk to kids about sex
Parents often have the misconception that some forms of birth control are restricted by age, but Hoopes said that as long as an adolescent has had their period and is otherwise healthy, “all methods are available except sterilization, which is getting your tubes tied.” The choices basically boil down to three types, from least to most effective: barrier methods such as condoms and diaphragms; short-acting methods such as the birth control pill, vaginal ring, and skin patches or injections; and long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), such as an IUD or implant.
Many teens, however, are not using the most effective methods of birth control. According to the CDC, data collected from 2015 to 2017 about birth control methods used by sexually active females ages 15 to 19 found that 97 percent had used condoms, 65 percent had used withdrawal and 53 percent had used pills. Nineteen percent had used emergency contraception.
Many teens also are not aware of LARC options, which are expensive. But public health experts are trying to change that. A Colorado initiative to improve access to these options cut teen pregnancy and abortion rates nearly in half.
When you do talk to your kids, the main goal should be to convey that they can contact you whatever situation they are in. Hoopes suggested making the conversation “about health and safety, not about values and judgment.” A parent could say something like, “’What I want for you is to for you to achieve your personal goals, for you to complete your education or live your best adult life. And part of that is avoiding pregnancy before you’re ready for one. And I want to be a part of that conversation with you.’”
Widman suggests avoiding yes/no questions, such as “Are you being safe?” Instead, you could ask more open-ended questions, such as, “What have you heard about birth control?” or “What are you friends saying about sexual activity?”
And if you’re wondering how important your involvement is, Hoopes said research indicates that teens are more likely to access contraception and use it more consistently if they feel connected to their families.
Experts say you should have similar conversations about birth control options with boys as you do with girls. “Both male-identifying and female-identifying adolescents should understand biology and sex and healthy relationships and supportive relationships,” Maslowsky said. “And so, I would not have the conversations very differently. If my teen was capable of pregnancy, then I would talk with them about how to prevent pregnancy in their own body. If my teen was capable of making someone pregnant, then I would talk with them about how they can prevent that.”
Currently, the only male contraceptive option is the condom. While condoms are 98 percent effective with “perfect use” (consistently and correctly), the rate falls to 82 percent with “typical use” (what usually happens in real life). “To use a condom in a way that optimizes the effectiveness does require some education,” Hoopes said. If your teen is not receiving that education through school, you can talk to their pediatrician.
Why there’s still no new birth control for men
Beyond condoms, which teens of any gender should be using to prevent sexually transmitted infections, boys should understand and be involved in decisions about other forms of contraception, and support their partners, the experts said.
“I would say that pregnancy prevention is everyone’s responsibility and that I think, unfortunately, boys get left out of that conversation, not by their own fault,” Hoopes said.
Help your child consider their options
All birth control options have positives and negatives, and most come with potential side effects. “The best, most supportive thing a parent can do is provide information and provide support and help the adolescent make the decision that’s right for them,” Maslowsky said.
Health-care providers are ready to help. “We use a model called shared decision-making in contraception care,” Hoopes said, “where the patient or the patient and their parent is the expert in their own experience and their body, and the physician or the clinician is the expert in the methods and how they’re used and what the risks and side effects are. And together, in partnership, we make a decision that’s best for that patient.”
Ideally, teens will want to talk to their parents about birth control, but if not, parents can make sure adolescents have some time to talk privately with their pediatrician during their yearly checkups or help them identify other adults — such as a family friend or favorite aunt — who would support them and help them find resources.
Parents can also guide teens — and themselves — to online information from organizations such as the CDC, Planned Parenthood and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The experts also recommended several other resources: Amaze.org has a website and a YouTube channel specifically designed for adolescents by the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, which focuses on sex education. Power to Decide, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent unplanned pregnancies, has a page called Find Your Method. It also runs Bedsider.org, a site aimed at older teens and people in their 20s. The Reproductive Health Access Project has a detailed chart about birth control options.
According to Maslowsky, there is a consensus in the scientific community “that teens can make decisions about their health care, about their sexual and reproductive health care, that they’re absolutely capable of weighing the pros and cons and making decisions about what’s right for them in terms of the contraception, in terms of being sexually active or not, in terms of abortion.”
Researchers also know that teens like to obtain advice on these issues from adults they are close to. “And so if a teen comes to you and asks for your help, for your opinion, that’s great,” she said. “That means that they’re exercising their ability to make these informed decisions. They’re bringing in trusted experts. And so, I would work with them on the decision. I would support them on their decision.”
Have a question about parenting? Ask The Post.