By understand common developmental themes related to sexuality and reproduction throughout adolescence, parents will be able to adjust their message on sexual health to best meet the needs of their child.
Studies confirm that the majority of unintentional pregnancies occur during adolescence. Therefore, it is prudent to understand the developmental mindset of teens to prepare them to manage the sexual feelings that are natural to the biological processes happening within their bodies, the social situations that can influence their decision making ability, and their cognitive ability to understand their decisions and anticipate the consequences of their actions.
An unintended pregnancy can happen at any age including girls as young as 11 years old. Many parents think that late childhood or pre-adolescence is too early to talk about sexual health and reproduction. However, pre-adolescent girls can become pregnant. The most common reasons that pre-teens become pregnant are because they do not understand the changes that are occurring in their bodies that may cause them to become pregnant, they are being sexually abused by older adolescents or adults, or they have not yet developed the cognitive ability of abstract thought to understand that her behavior is putting her at risk of pregnancy.
Adolescents between 13-15 years are in the depths of egocentrism of adolescents and live in the moment while not focusing on the repercussions or consequences of their decisions beyond the here and now. Additionally, early and middle teens are at risk of being sexually manipulated if they are trying to befriend and hang out with older adolescents or young adults in order to validate their presence in the group.
Middle and late adolescents
Older adolescents, ages 16 years and up, may have irregular use of their preferred birth control methods. Or, they may find themselves engaging in risky behaviors related to drug and alcohol use that can impair their decisions making skills and the use of condoms. Additionally, based on these high-risk behaviors, older teens may at risk for sexual assault.
Teens with the lowest risk of unintentional pregnancy have open, trusting relationships with one or more adults, know where to seek assistance when needed, are in safe environments with no abuse, are not engaging in high-risk behaviors such as drugs or alcohol, and arrange their lives within a family structure that allows independence with limits for protection and guidance. This creates a situation where the teens are aware of their abilities, limits, have a clear sense of themselves including where they fit into their family and society while understanding their rights and obligations in relation to both.
The best age to talk to teens about birth control
More important than talking about birth control or abstinence at a certain age, parents can help their children avoid unintentional pregnancy by discussing the dignity of the human body from the earliest ages. Beginning in infancy, teaching children to use the correct names to describe their genitals can remove negative stigma related to sexuality, empower children to own their bodies from a young age, and help reduce the risk of sexual abuse by avoiding making the body a play object or toy. Additionally, teaching children that their bodies are private and should only been seen by parents or health care providers can make them aware of their importance in the world and give them tools to begin making decision about what is right and wrong for their bodies.
As children grow up, continuing this education of respecting the body can continue by discussing overt sexuality or hyper-sexuality that is commercially seen in society. Speaking to children, in age appropriate language and themes, about explicit messages emanating from music videos, commercials, television programming, and Internet memes/videos/social media around sex and sexuality can help children begin to learn that those messages may not match the family’s values. Parents can use these images to both educate and inform both boys and girls. Little by little, children learn to question the images they see, seek advice and counsel from parents when they see something they know is not matching with the family’s values, and, over time, learn to evaluate independently explicit sexual images.
Finally, during adolescence when teens have more independence, parents need to speak directly to teens about risks of premature sexual behavior and what choices they can make if they do decide to engage in sexual acts to reduce the risks to their physical, mental, social, and emotional health. It has been shown that higher-quality relationships between adolescents and their parents, especially between mothers and daughters, may help to protect against early sexual initiation, delay sexual initiation and create healthier sexual practices (e.g. condom use, contraception, seeking medical treatment for infection, etc.).
Parents can only provide their children the tools to make good choices. Children must find reasons to be motivated to use the tools they learn. By communicating and educating clearly on family values, expectations, and helping teens understand the potential consequences of their actions, parents prepare their children to think before they act and prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
For more information, see my future blog post titled, “Why is teen pregnancy still happening? How to talk to your teen (Part II)” for examples and suggestions on how to address this important issue in your family.
- Sedgh, G., Singh, S., & Hussain, R. (2014). Intended and Unintended Pregnancies Worldwide in 2012 and Recent Trends. Studies in Family Planning, 45(3), 301–314. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1728-4465.2014.00393.x
- Chandra, A., Martinez, G., Mosher, W. D., Abma, J., & Jones, J. (2005). Fertility, family planning, and reproductive health of U.S. women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Vital Health Statistics, 23(25).
- Nogueira Avelar e Silva, R., van de Bongardt, D., van de Looij-Jansen, P., Wijtzes, A., & Raat, H. (2016). Mother– and Father–Adolescent Relationships and Early Sexual Intercourse. Pediatrics 138(6), e-pub ahead of print: DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-0782
- Wurtele, S.K., Melzer, A.M., & Kast, L.C. (1992). Preschoolers’ knowledge of and ability to learn genital terminology. Journal Of Sex Education And Therapy 18(2), pp. 115-122.
About the instructor
Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.