March 3, 2008 -- Ideally, that "facts of life" talk you have with your children should be a series of sex ed discussions that cover a range of topics, rather than one long talk, according to a new study.
"Because of discomfort with the topic, there is that hope that it can be taken care of with a single talk," says Steven C. Martino, PhD, study researcher and a behavioral scientist at Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh.
But his new study, published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics, suggests that a continuous, repetitive, wide-ranging conversation with your kids about sex is the better approach.
Study: Beyond the "Big Talk"
"We know [already] that the more parents talk to their kids [about sex], the better off the kid is in terms of healthy beliefs," Martino says, citing previous research. Children whose parents talk often about sex education are more likely to delay sex until an older age and to take precautions when they do become sexually active, he says.
In the new study, Martino and his colleagues wanted to assess the independent influence of repeating topics and covering many topics on the teen's perceptions of their relationships and communication with their parents. "What we were interested in is whether the extent to which having repeated discussions about sexual topics and also covering a wide variety of topics matter" in terms of how teens feel about their relationship with their parents and how easy it was or wasn't to talk to them about sex.
The researchers polled 312 teens in grades 6 through 10, and their parents. They responded to four surveys during the yearlong study, telling whether they had discussed each of 22 sex-related topics and how often they had. Teens rated their overall relationship with their parents, too, including their ability to communicate about sex and other topics.
Among the topics: the making of decisions about whether to have sex, consequences of getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant, selection of a birth control method, what it feels like to have sex, and protection offered by condoms.
Study Results: Repetition Key in Sex Ed
Repetition was good, the researchers found. "We found that kids whose sexual communication with their parents involved more repetition felt closer to their parents, better able to communicate with them in general and about sex in particular, and they perceived their discussions about sex happened more easily and with more openness in comparison to kids whose communication involved less repetition," Martino tells WebMD.
The greater the number of topics that were discussed, the more openness teens said they felt during these talks.
At the start of the study, the average number of topics that teens had discussed was seven of the 22.
"On average we found that parents and teens had 10 repeat discussions over the course of the year," Martino says. That is, they revisited a topic previously discussed that often. Regarding breadth of topics, the average number of new topics discussed during the study was reported as three, on average.
Sex Ed: The Role of Repetition and "Breadth"
"We think that having these repeated discussions is so important because it helps kids to better understand the information," Martino says. "It helps them to get a clear sense of what their parents' values are, and it boosts parent and child feelings of comfort in talking about sex."
Revisiting a topic allows children to ask clarifying questions, he says, and allows parents to talk about topics in a more age-appropriate way as a child matures. Some abstract topics become less so as the child gets older, he adds.
The study reinforces what is seen anecdotally, says Vanessa Cullins, MD, MPH, MBA, vice president for medical affairs for Planned Parenthood of America, New York, who reviewed the study results for WebMD.
What is new about the study, she says, is the importance of the repetition and variety of topics.
The study, she says, "reinforces what Planned Parenthood has always believed in, and that is that parents should be the primary educators in a child's life, and that the best way to keep teens healthy and safe is to have open, honest communication [about sexual matters]."
As parents, she says, "you just can't deal with the subject of sex infrequently or every blue moon." It should be a frequent part of household conversation, she says.
Sex Ed Advice for Parents
Lack of preparation is one cause of discomfort for parents when asked questions about sex by their kids, Martino says. Prepare yourself for the expected questions ahead of time, he suggests. Anticipate you'll be asked questions sooner than you think -- maybe even when your children are still toddlers.
"It's OK to admit you feel uncomfortable," he says. It's also OK, he says, to gather more information on a topic and get back to your kids.
One way to ease into talks about sex, Martino says, is to look for what he calls "teachable moments." If something is in the news that is sexually related, or something happened at school that lends itself to discussion, take advantage, he says.
Take advantage, too, of prepared materials that may help you, Cullins says. Many Planned Parenthood affiliates in the U.S. offer special programs that help parents talk to their kids about sex, she says.