For many parents of teenagers, the idea of discussing sexually transmitted infections with their kids seems awkward, challenging and even frightening. But these are important conversations to have.
“Learning about STIs is as fundamental to developing an understanding of our health as learning how to wash our hands,” sex education teacher Kim Cavill told HuffPost.
Indeed, STIs are incredibly common in the U.S., and about half of the 20 million new cases each year affect people between the ages of 15 and 24. (Note: We’ve opted to use STI rather than STD, as all such diseases start out as infections, but not all infected people develop the diseases.) Parents also play a bigger role in their children’s sex education than they may realize.
“Teens view parents as the number one influencers when it comes to their sexual decision making, so when caregivers maintain open lines of communication, it supports a young person’s sexual health,” sex educator Melissa Carnagey explained. “Sex ed in schools can be inconsistent to non-existent, so parents taking the lead on talks about topics like STIs helps to ensure their young person feels informed and supported.”
Understandably, parents may feel uncomfortable broaching the topic of STIs, but there are ways to defuse the awkwardness. HuffPost spoke to sex educators to find out how parents and caregivers can talk to their teens about STIs in a helpful, not embarrassing way.
Practice By Yourself First
Odds are that a parent’s uneasiness with these conversations is tied to their own reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality.
“If you feel awkward and embarrassed, take some time to practice by yourself first. Self-talk is a great way to work through embarrassment and shame,” Cavill advised.
“It also helps to remember that sexually transmitted infections are exceedingly common, and all are manageable conditions with early testing and treatment,” she added.
Make It Part Of An Ongoing Conversation
There’s a common misconception that “the talk” is just a single, intense, in-depth conversation, but it’s actually a series of discussions about sex. Parents can build on those previous discussions when talking about STIs.
“There’s no possible way to cover everything at once, and your child may not be ready to go into that much detail,” said Andrea Barrica, founder of the sex education platform O.school. She emphasized that parents should start talking about sex-related topics in developmentally appropriate ways from an early age. “Talking about sex is a continuous conversation throughout growing up. Don’t avoid talking about it or mentioning it casually.”
Choose A Casual Setting
In the same vein, you don’t need to make a big production of STI conversations. Cavill recommends talking about it in the car, where there are fewer distractions and you don’t have to face each other.
“Even if your teen acts disgusted or like they’re not listening, chances are they are actually listening,” she said.
Sex educator Nadine Thornhill said parents can initiate these talks while making dinner with their kids or playing a card game as well. “Setting up a dynamic where you don’t have to be looking at each other can help to lighten the mood, and it gives you something to do with your body and focus on, which helps with some of that nervous energy,” she noted.
Start With Questions
“A great way into this conversation is asking an open-ended question like, ‘What sorts of things have you heard about sexually transmitted infections or sexually transmitted diseases?’” said Cavill, adding that parents can also buy an STI home testing kit from the drugstore and ask their teens if they know what it’s for. Visiting the doctor and receiving the HPV vaccine also offer good opportunities to discuss STI prevention.
Another way to broach the topic is to bring up current events, said Carnagey. “For example, the recent reports of the rise in reported STI cases in the U.S. could be an opportunity to check in about what they know, have heard, or experienced already about STIs.”
Acknowledge Any Awkwardness
If you still feel uncomfortable talking to your teen about STIs, you can always break the ice by acknowledging the awkwardness.
“When you’re starting the conversation, say, ‘Look, I’m feeling a little awkward about this and I know it can be embarrassing ... but I think it’s very important that we talk about this,’” Thornhill suggested. “Sometimes when you’re feeling awkward and trying not to show it, that just makes it worse. It’s helpful for your teen to know you’re both on the same page emotionally and that the awkwardness doesn’t have to stop you from talking about this topic.”
Remove The Stigma
“For many decades, we’ve used STIs as a deterrent to premarital sex. We focused on late-stage STI symptoms, showed scary pictures of weeping herpes blisters, and lectured generations of young people saying, ‘Sex could kill you,’” Cavill explained. “If shame and stigma actually prevented STIs, our rates would be significantly lower than they are. Instead, they’re some of the highest in the developed world.”
In reality, STIs are manageable conditions when people get tested and seek treatment early on. Rather than preventing STI infections, shame and stigma simply discourage people from pursuing testing and treatment.
“Therefore, when you talk to your teen about STIs, don’t talk about them in a scary, life-or-death way,” Cavill said. “Simply mention their existence, say that they’re common, say they’re preventable, and most importantly, they’re entirely manageable with responsible testing and treatment, which are a fundamental part of an ethical, pleasurable sex life.”
Focus On Facts
“Poorly delivered sex ed can use scare tactics, focusing on images of gnarly STI outbreaks or symptoms, but the reality is that the most common symptom of a sexually transmitted infection is no symptom at all,” said Carnagey. “This means that a sexual partner’s genitals or body can show no visible sign of an infection they may be living with, but can still transmit the infection upon sexual contact.”
It’s important that teens know the actual facts about STIs. Misinformation can lead them to make unsafe sexual decisions instead of talking to partners about contraceptive options or seeking STI testing and treatment. Carnagey believes it’s best to approach sex education with the goal of informing young people, not scaring them or making them feel conflicted.
“If shame and stigma actually prevented STIs, our rates would be significantly lower than they are. Instead, they’re some of the highest in the developed world.”
“When parents take an interest in ensuring their teen has facts without fear, they better equip them for sexual health,” she added.
Emphasize Your Support
In addition to focusing on facts, make sure your teen feels supported and able to talk with you about their concerns.
“Parents of teens can often fear the worst and may seek to control the outcomes of their young person, but it’s important to remember that the journey is theirs,” Carnagey said. “It will include risks and rewards, so giving them space to explore and providing a trusted landing space that teens can return to, if questions or concerns arise, is a parent’s best role.”
Be Aware Of Your Own Attitudes
You may have internalized negative feelings about STIs that foster a sense of judgment or shame, so it’s best to think about the attitudes you’re transmitting.
“Be aware of your own reactions and attitudes around sex and sexuality, like reactions to media, in public, etc. Kids are always watching and observing and will pick up on things that make you feel uncomfortable, and that may discourage them from asking or talking about it in the future,” said Barrica. “Sometimes it’s just about giving an honest, simple answer without reaction and judgment.”
Carnagey noted that STIs are often the punchlines of jokes, which may seem harmless but can discourage open conversations. “If young people hear adults making fun of or negatively speaking about a topic, they are less likely to feel comfortable talking confidently about it with them,” she said.
Don’t Be Afraid To Be Vulnerable
Parents can connect to their teens by “getting vulnerable in sharing some experiences they have encountered along their sexual health journeys,” Carnagey said. “Being a parent means it’s highly likely you’ve navigated puberty, relationships, and sexual decision making.”
She suggested that parents consider opening up about their own stories, which can convey valuable messages such as “I know what it can be like,” “You’re not alone,” and “I’m here to support you, not judge you.”
Cover Different Types Of Sex
When discussing STI prevention, people tend to focus on condoms, vaginal sex and heterosexual relationships, but that is not comprehensive.
“Make your teens aware that there are other options beyond external condoms because not all STIs are spread via penile-vaginal sex,” said Thornhill. And just double-check and make sure they actually know how to use whatever they’d be using.”
“Infections are transmitted and acquired between bodies, no matter a person’s gender or sexual identity,” Carnagey noted, “so it is important that parents talk to ALL young people about STIs without making assumptions about the type of sex they believe a young person is or is not having.”
Use The Available Resources
You don’t have to know everything about every STI because the internet makes these facts very accessible.
“Any bit of information that you do not know or understand, you can look up together,” said Carnagey. “Some great, medically accurate ― and not too clinical ― resources for teens to learn about STIs are scarleteen.com, sexetc.org, and amaze.org. Planned Parenthood also has a chatbot called Roo that is available to answer any sexual health question as they come up.”
Thornhill likes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, as well as the Canadian site Sex & U.
Outsource If Needed
“If a teen really doesn’t want to talk to you about this, they don’t have to,” said Cavill. “There’s a lot of other caring adults in the community that are in positions to help.”
She noted that parents can schedule doctor’s appointments or accompany their teens to a local Planned Parenthood or youth-friendly sexual health clinic. During these visits, the parents should leave the room so that their kids can have the conversation with a health care provider.
“You can also provide them with Planned Parenthood’s texting service, which allows people to confidentially text Planned Parenthood with questions about STIs, contraception, and many other things,” Cavill said.