Your Kids ARE Listening: Why You Should Talk to Them About Love, Sex, and Relationships (Lessons from South Carolina)

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I've had the opportunity to work with an amazing organization for the past eleven years, the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. I just returned from spending two days with Forrest Alton and his staff who are celebrating their 20th Anniversary this year.

The campaign and the state of South Carolina have a lot to celebrate. There has been a 54% reduction of teen pregnancies over the last twenty years and rates have declined for all ages, all races, and in every single county in the state. I spent Friday morning in Spartanburg county, where there was an event celebrating a 46% decrease in teen pregnancies in just the last six years. That is almost unheard of!

Of course the story in South Carolina isn't changing because people sat around wishing things could be different. Instead, entire communities came together to take action. In Spartanburg county, for example, all sectors of the community got involved in engaging young people in this issue including health, faith, and community organizations.

Perhaps most importantly, teens themselves had voice in the process. As opposed to being viewed as the "problem," the campaign created a Youth Action Board so that young people can be a part of the solution and continuously seeks ways to engage young people as assets in the process.

So what can we learn from South Carolina? A lot. Here is what they have learned works:

  1. Broad implementation of evidence-based approaches.
  2. Expanding access to age-appropriate health services.
  3. Engaged and invested communities including parents, school leaders, faith groups and other decision makers.

The importance of the third point cannot be overstated. There isn't a teen prevention program in the country that doesn't engage parents. This is because when parents talk to their children about sex and sexual decision-making, young people are much more likely to delay sex and make safer choices when they do become sexually active.

Love, sex, and the brain

There is a common misperception among parents that if they talk to their kids about sex, it will make them interested in it. The reality is that young people are already interested in sex. Adolescents have natural processes at work in their brains and bodies that prompt an interest in sex.

Around the age of ten, the body increases production of a group of hormones in the brain known as androgens. As these androgens increase, young people experience their first crush. Sexual interest, the sex drive, and falling in love don't take center stage until puberty hits. At this point, there are brain and hormone changes that trigger sexual thoughts, fantasies and curiosity. The sex drive is fueled by elevated levels of dopamine, the chemical I call "happy," because it makes us feel good.

When we adults ignore the reality of young people's burgeoning sexuality, we are ignoring what is going on in their brains.

Parents matter.

Though you might never guess it from your child's reaction, a couple of decades of solid research tell us that parents have enormous influence on their children's decisions about sex. In the absence of parental conversations, most teens will get their information from peers, the media, and online. None of these sources are the best sex educators. In a review of the research, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy points out a number of ways we can help our children navigate to healthy sexual decision making:

  • Prioritize connection. Overall closeness with your child and your time, caring, support, and concern are associated with reduced risk of early sex and pregnancy.
  • Communicate your attitudes and values early and often. Discussing the value of delaying sex and talking about contraception does mean that it is more likely that they will delay sex and/or use contraception when they do engage in sexual activity.
  • Pay attention and stay involved. A balanced parenting style that prioritizes supervising and monitoring your teen's behavior leads to more positive outcomes. That said, overly controlling or authoritarian parenting seems to backfire and reverse those trends. Loosen but don't let go.
  • Don't doubt your influence. Most parents think that peers are a stronger influence over sexual decision-making. Yet teens report that parents influence their decisions more than friends or the media.

This doesn't mean that talking to our children about sex and sexuality is easy. The South Carolina campaign's message to parents is "Don't just have 'the talk.' Start a conversation." So how do you get started?

Here are some more concrete tips for talking to your teen about sex and sexuality and about romance and dating.