June 11, 2001 -- Which factors matter most to teens deciding whether to become sexually active? Peer pressure? Media images? Education? Religious background? All play a role, but new research suggests parents may have the most influence of all.
By Keith Ablow, M.D.
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You may think they're tuning you out when the talk turns to birds and bees, but they're not, according to two studies released in April by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) that reinforce the role of parental advice and role-modeling in determining the sexual behavior of teens. In those studies, more teens, 38%, pointed to their parents as the biggest influence on their sexual behavior -- more than friends, the media, educators, siblings, or religious organizations.
In recognition of this, the organization urges parents to engage their children "early and often in discussions of sex, love, relationships, and values."
"A lot of parents wonder when to have 'the talk' with their kids," says Ingrid Sanden of NCPTP. "The answer is never. You have to create an environment where your kids feel comfortable coming to you when they need answers, and that means keeping things open from the time your kids are old enough to understand."
Both mom and dad need to start the dialogue early and keep the lines of communication open, she says. Many parents who are otherwise fearless when it comes to keeping their children safe become cringing, tongue-tied cowards at the thought of talking to them about sex. But it may be one of the most important steps they can take to protect them.
Parents should also establish rules and standards of expected behavior, Sanden says. They should discourage frequent and steady dating among younger teens, take a strong stand against a daughter dating a significantly older boy or a son dating a much younger girl, and emphasize the value of education.
"Parents are really important in forming their kids' values," Sanden says. "It is strange to even have to say that, but so many parents feel that they are powerless, especially with teens."