Beyond cooties: Teaching our kids about sex

Wash your hands, use a tissue, buckle up; keeping kids safe and healthy is a full-time job, and as they grow, things can get even more complicated.

When children reach adolescence and it’s time to face issues of sexuality, parents may run for cover. Having “the talk” may be one of the more challenging aspects of parenting, but helping your adolescent and teen stay safe includes helping them to navigate the paths ahead.

While addressing their curiosity and the confusion they might be feeling, you can also have a positive impact on their health. It’s almost never too early to start.

Some types of sex ed need to be taught at a very young age, such as “good touch, bad touch,”  says Cathy McAfee, CRNP, a medical provider for Keystone Community Outreach in Chambersburg. “Sexuality is everywhere, so teach your children in small doses through the years, so when they hit adolescence, it’s not a new topic. Let your children know that you are a safe place where they can come to talk.”

When talking about “stranger danger,” McAfee says to remember that 90 percent of inappropriate touch situations are by a person in the child’s life; a friend of the family, relative, or peer. It’s important to let children know they do not have to hug or kiss their relatives, she adds. Even the youngest of children has a comfort level and they shouldn’t be forced to cross it.

When talking about sex, it’s best to keep answers simple, and if you don’t know the answer, admit it and look it up together.

“Don’t make assumptions,” McAfee says. “Make sure the information you’re giving them is understandable. It’s also okay to admit you’re uncomfortable.”

While it may be tempting to have one “big talk” because then it’s over with, that may not be best option for the child.

“Sex ed isn’t just one conversation,” says Patricia Fonzi, CEO of the Family Health Council of Pennsylvania. “Children want to talk about sex and sexuality with the adults in their life and that won’t be one conversation.”

Having good talks together and having a good relationship with your child go hand in hand, Fonzi says. “We tell parents ‘think back to when you got the talk’ and ask yourself what you would have changed in that conversation.” The most important rule to remember: Teach in ways that don’t shame the child, she says.

“What you are feeling is normal,” is one of the best sentences you can use, Fonzi adds. “There is always the exception; the child who doesn’t want to talk about it,” she says. “But for the most part, kids are curious and want to know.”

While sex education is mandated in public schools, it’s up to each school district to decide how much sex ed each student receives, and some districts may be lacking, says Karen McGraw, vice-president of Advocacy and Development of the Family Health Council of Pennsylvania. It’s important that the information is comprehensive.

“When a sex ed curriculum doesn’t address LGBT issues, the LGBT kids don’t see themselves and they don’t get a sense of being valued in that education,” McGraw says.

If you’re having that talk at home, she says, remember, it’s not about sex as much as it’s about love and relationships.

“We’d like to believe our kids will tell us about anything,” says McGraw. “But adolescents may not be able to cross that divide.”

Parents need to bridge that great divide, because STDs and unplanned pregnancy are real. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the Commonwealth, McGraw says, with chlamydia a close second. Gonorrhea and syphilis are also on the upswing, McGraw says.

Regarding teenaged unplanned pregnancy, Pennsylvania ranks 39th out of the 50 states, McGraw says.

“We usually see STDs first, then unplanned pregnancies,” Fonzi says. “Despite all our efforts, and we’ve been working on this our whole careers, it’s a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional problem.

“We used to do HIV and STD education in schools, but that money is all dried up; it’s no longer a priority,” Fonzi continues. When making a comparison among other developed countries, statistics find that the United States is unique in its unplanned pregnancy epidemic, she says. Those countries may have a more comprehensive sex ed program and better access to contraceptives, she notes.

A behavioral risk assessment study by the Centers for Disease Control on the sexual behavior of high school students found that only 4 percent of students have sex before the age of 13, but from ninth to 12th grades, that number rises to 40 percent, Fonzi says.

How will you know when your child is ready to hear about the birds and the bees? “Trust your children; they’ll lead the way in the type of questions they ask,” Fonzi says.

Children as young as 11 or 12 may begin to engage in risky behaviors, so take the time to talk.

If your adolescent or early-teen has a good relationship with the family doctor, it’s okay to set up some one-to-one time for your child to speak with his or her doctor. That might also be a good time to bring up the Gardasil vaccine.

“It’s one of the most positive public health accomplishments in recent memory,” Fonzi says, explaining that Gardasil is the only vaccine known to prevent cancer, to date.

Gardasil eradicates the HPV virus – human papilloma virus – the virus responsible for oral/pharyngeal cancer, cervical and vaginal cancer, penile and anal cancer, and genital warts. It is literally a life-saver.

Fonzi cautions parents not to get caught-up in anti-vaccine sentiment.

“If you ask parents, ‘do you want a vaccine against cancer for your child?’ they would say yes,” Fonzi says. “This is a vaccine that prevents cancer.”

It’s recommended that Gardasil be given in two doses to children ages 11 and 12; after the age of 15, three doses are needed. Nationally, nearly 49 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 are up-to-date with the Gardasil series, Fonzi says. While it is possible to get HPV after receiving the Gardasil vaccine, the strain would be a less likely candidate to cause cancer, she explains.

“HPV is so prevalent that physicians want to make sure they vaccinate adolescents before they get exposed to it,” McGraw says. “Parents may say ‘my kids aren’t going to need that; they won’t be sexually active for a long time,’ but that may not be true.”

In Pennsylvania, no parental consent is needed for kids to speak to a doctor about sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy testing, contraceptive use, or HIV testing, Fonzi says.

“We are so interested in this vaccine because just the fact that it’s a cancer vaccine gives us hope,” Fonzi says.

Teens in Pennsylvania have a 50 to 60 percent compliance rate regarding the Gardasil vaccine, according to McAfee. “It is a wonderful discovery, a wonderful vaccine,” McAfee says. “All states want high compliance.”

Medical providers in the Commonwealth are seeing an increase in sexually transmitted infections, McAfee says, and a full 85 percent of people don’t know they have a sexually transmitted infection.

“The fastest growing rate of these infections is in ages 14 to 24,” McAfee says. “It’s so important for people age 25 and younger to get tested.”

McAfee can sum up the best ways to protect against STDs in five words: Use condoms, limit sexual partners.

Teens do not become promiscuous by talking about sex with their parents, Fonzi stresses. In fact, studies show that teens who report talking with their parents about sex are more likely to delay having sex and more likely to use condoms when they do. Teens also report that their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex; more than friends, siblings, or the media, according to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

“We are their teachers and what we say has a great influence on them,” McAfee says. “We pass on what we believe and what is right and wrong and they are listening.”


Marylouise Sholly, a former full time journalist and photographer, is a children’s book author and freelance writer. She lives in historic Schaefferstown in Lebanon County.