Do More Than Lecture About Abstinence

Simply Expressing Not to Have Sex Doesn't Work

Man explaining contraception
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When it comes talking about sex, contraception and teenage dating, it seems that parents tend to get trapped making some predictable mistakes. One of these errors has to do with only discussing abstinence. When asked about this issue, teens have overwhelmingly responded that they need to hear more from their parents than just "don't have sex." In fact, this is one area where teens feel that their parents must give them the benefit of the doubt. Parents should not allow themselves to fall into the pitfall of believing that their teen will receive mixed messages or become confused if both contraception and abstinence are discussed at the same time. Show your teen that you respect his/her intelligence enough to engage in these responsible discussions. As per the requests expressed by many teens:

Parents – You Must Do More than Just Lecture about Abstinence

I realize this can be a slippery slope. It is important that you (as a parent) unmistakably clarify for your teen your hopes and values with respect to their behavior. It is perfectly OK for you to share your opinion, morals and expectations about sex with your teen. It may be helpful, though, for you to first be clear about your own sexual attitudes and values before having this conversation. When having this discussion, make sure you are explaining why you feel the way you do (this is not the time for “because I said so”), actively seek your teen’s input and listen to what they have to say.

I wish, though, it could be just that easy. Unfortunately, in today’s world, parents need to do much more than tell your teen not to have sex. This is also the time that you must talk about sex and contraception:

  • Candidly
  • Confidently
  • And be honest if you are not sure about something

Make it a Conversation

It may also be helpful to discuss how you felt when you were a teenager... keeping in mind the change of the times. Do your best to make this a conversation rather than a lecture.

  • Ask your teen for his/her opinions
  • Listen
  • Be respectful
  • In addition to talking about safety and pregnancy, talk about the emotions that can come along with a sexual relationship
  • Consider your teen’s point of view
  • Encourage questions and respond to what they have to say

It may be helpful to know that 53% of teens say that their parents or their own religious beliefs, morals and values influence their sexual decisions the most. Teens whose parents provide clear messages about the value of abstinence are more likely to delay their first sexual experience, and parents who discuss contraception are more likely to have teens who use birth control when they finally choose to engage in sexual activity.

The Research

Researchers Michelle M. Isley et al. discovered that abstinence-only education is simply not enough. Their study revealed that teens who believed that they received sex education that ONLY contained information about birth control methods were much more likely to use a reliable contraceptive method the first time they engaged in sex. It seems that teens who experienced sex education discussions that mainly included strong lectures on abstinence were less likely to use a reliable contraceptive during their first sexual act. This data suggests that abstinence-only messaging tends to cancel out, or dilutes, the potential beneficial effects conveyed by information about birth control methods. It seems then, that stressing more to your teen not to have sex, especially when no information about contraception is presented, can lead to undependable birth control use.

This study also showed that when parents discuss sex topics in detail (and not just abstinence), there is a higher likelihood that their teens will use a more dependable birth control method. These comprehensive sex conversations between parents and teens (that go beyond parents telling teens not to have sex) help to promote healthier teen sexual behaviors. Parents should discuss hormonal birth control methods because teens who use these methods tend to do so more consistently. This conversation should not be reserved for just female teens.

  • Many male teens have shown very limited knowledge about hormonal contraceptives (believing many myths about the pill, for example) or may not even know what hormonal options are available. When parents provide their teen sons with this information, it will help them to feel more secure in their knowledge – this, in turn, will help serve as an essential step in helping these young men facilitate responsible discussions about contraceptives with their girlfriends.

Talk About Condoms

Finally, it appears that teens who have participated in discussions with family members about condoms are more likely to use condoms themselves. So, my final tip... when parents talk about how to use condoms or buy condoms (rather than focus on abstinence), teen condom use increases.

And to back me up on all this, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Adolescents, actively supports and encourages doctors to counsel teens about the correct and consistent use of reliable contraception and condoms among those who are sexually active or considering sexual activity. Given that research clearly supports that parents can positively influence whether their female teens engage in safer sexual practices when they have sexual intercourse, parents and teens should both be encouraged to talk about the discussions that the teen had with her doctor during her appointment.

The bottom line here, parents: It's time to go beyond abstinence lectures:

  • Your teen doesn’t want to hear not to have sex.
  • Your teen needs comprehensive birth control information and should be encouraged to use effective contraception.
  • Teens should understand how pregnancy happens.
  • Help strengthen your teen's negotiation skills, so he/she can confidently discuss contraceptive use with their partners and/or can effectively "say no".
  • Teens taught information about safer sexual practices by their parents are more likely to engage in these behaviors themselves.
  • Do more than lecture about abstinence -- protect your teen and help him/her begin to make healthy and responsible sexual choices.


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    Article Sources

    • Abbey B. Berenson, Z. Helen Wu, Carmen Radecki Breitkopf, Jennifer Newman. “The relationship between source of sexual information and sexual behavior among female adolescents.” Contraception. 2006. 73(3): 274-278. Accessed via private subscription.
    • Michelle M. Isley, Alison Edelman, Bliss Kaneshiro, Dawn Peters, Mark D. Nichols, Jeffrey T. Jensen. “Sex education and contraceptive use at coital debut in the United States: Results from Cycle 6 of the National Survey of Family Growth.” Contraception. 2010. 82(3): 236-242. Accessed via private subscription.
    • Rebecca D. Merkh, Paul G. Whittaker, Kaysee Baker, Linda Hock-Long,Kay Armstrong. “Young unmarried men's understanding of female hormonal contraception.” Contraception. 2009. 79(3): 2284-235. Accessed via private subscription.