Study: Having ‘the talk’ just once won’t keep teens from having unsafe sex

PROVO, Utah — It’s the conversation many parents dread having with their kids, but still an essential life lesson nonetheless. “The talk,” of course, is a rite of passage for teens meant to lay out both the risks and rewards of having sex, but does it really help? A new study finds that it can — but having one conversation simply isn’t enough.

“Our current culture is highly sexualized, so children are learning about sexuality in a fragmented way from an early age,” explains study author Laura Padilla-Walker, a family life professor at Brigham Young University, in a release. “Research suggests that parents can be an effective means of teaching their children about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner, but that does not occur if parents only have a single, uncomfortable, often one-sided talk.”

For the study, Padilla-Walker recruited 468 children ages 14 to 18 and their parents (157 of whom participated with only their mothers). Families were contacted every summer for 10 years and surveyed on any discussions regarding sexuality and avoiding sexual risk.

Padilla-Walker determined that ultimately, parents and teens don’t spend too much time discussing either topic. When they do, it’s typically the parents who are the ones bringing it up. That said, she found that when families discussed sexual issues more frequently, children were more likely to engage in safer sexual activity at age 21. Teens also felt more comfortable about discussing sex with their parents when “the talk” occurred more regularly.

The finding only emphasizes the need for parents to take the lead on having numerous conversations surrounding sex with their children as they grow up, Padilla-Walker argues. “Whether or not parents think they are talking about sexuality often, children are generally reporting low levels of communication. So parents need to increase sex communication even if they feel they are doing an adequate job,” she says. “All children are developing sexually and need continuous and high-quality communication with parents about the feelings they are experiencing.”

But she warns moms and dads: do not resort to fear tactics or lower a child’s self-worth if they reveal information about their sexual activity that they otherwise might be hesitant to share. “Parents should talk frequently with their children about many aspects of sexuality in a way that helps the child to feel comfortable and heard, but never shamed,” she says.

The full study was published September 29, 2018 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.