Editor’s Note: The story has been changed to reflect that in 1997, 1.2 million American teenagers became pregnant. The article previously stated that 1.2 million teens gave birth.
WASHINGTON — It is the conversation most parents dread. Just how do you talk to your kids about sex, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases?
“So many parents just feel so uncomfortable and so not at ease,” said Dr. Sheila Overton, an OB-GYN at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, in Rockville, Maryland.
She saw that unease firsthand while running a teen pregnancy prevention program in Los Angeles for roughly a decade, starting in 1997. Overton said she detected a real thirst for information, and eventually set out on a mission to teach parents how to handle this delicate topic with their kids.
The result is a book called “Before It’s Too Late — A Parent’s Guide to Teens, Sex and Sanity.” The book, which is now available in paperback, has been endorsed by others in the medical community as a great how-to book for moms and dads who just don’t know where to begin.
The idea is to start talking with your children when they are young, and continue the dialogue into the teen years.
“It can even be when they are toddlers and they are asking you questions about sex parts in a very naive way,” Overton said.
The key, she said, is to make it an ongoing conversation as opposed to “a talk” delivered when the child reaches adolescence.
“What research has shown over the years is that teens really cringe at that,” Overton said, adding that parents should be on the lookout for multiple opportunities to share guidance and values with their kids.
One big obstacle for many parents is the concern that by talking to their kids about sex they are condoning youthful sexual behavior. But Overton said that research shows just the opposite is true — that kids whose parents give them accurate information are less likely to engage in sex earlier and take risks.
She said it’s a matter of trust. “Kids in multiple surveys will say that they trust their parents more than they trust their peers, more than they trust their partners.”
Not all kids show that kind of respect and trust, and Overton said she has certainly seen that during her years working on teen sexuality. But she emphasized that deep down, “they understand that their parents care about them and want the best for them.”
But what about parents who don’t know where to begin? Overton says the first step is for them to believe in themselves and their ability to put forward a positive message.
Parents should think about the way they teach other life skills to their kids, such as crossing the street, for example.
“It’s the same concept,” she said. “Parents just have to gain more information and practice and become more comfortable with the information. And they can do it; I have seen it happen many times,” said Overton.
The goal is to become an approachable parent — the type of parent you would have responded to positively as a teen. Overton said the traits include “being a good listener, being somebody who is not judgmental and someone who has an open mind.”
It also helps to have a sense of humor, which has been shown to go a long way towards minimizing the discomfort some people feel.
Overton has been on a mission for roughly two decades to open up the channels of communication on what many parents consider to be a delicate subject, and it seems her efforts — and those of educators like her — are having a significant impact.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that teen pregnancies in the United States in 2014 fell to historic lows, with 249,078 babies born to women between the ages of 15 and 19.
In 2015, the CDC reported 22.3 live births per 1,000 teens. In 1997, when Overton launched her teen pregnancy project in Los Angeles, 1.2 million American teenagers became pregnant.
“Yes, we have dropped significantly; however, we started with rates that were … astronomical,” she said.
The trend may be in the right direction, but the teen pregnancy rate in this country is still substantially higher than in other Western, industrialized nations. And while much progress has been made, Overton said, Americans cannot become complacent — much more remains to be done.