Even if you believe in abstinence and teach those values to your child, talking about contraception is important, said Dr. Erin Latif, an OB/GYN at Augusta University Health who often sees and counsels teen patients and their moms.
After all, your teen may choose a path other than abstinence. It’s also far better for your child to hear the information from you, instead of possible misinformation from friends, social media or other internet sources.
Parents of sons should also have this talk, so that their teens understand how condoms work and the importance of making sure a potential partner cares about birth control.
Open discussions about sex, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases also have an effect most parents don’t realize: “It’s actually been shown that teens who are able to have open discussions with their parents comfortably are less likely to engage in sexual activity and less likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior,” said Latif.
Start talking—and talk regularly
Most likely, you’ll have an initial sex talk with your child when he or she hits puberty. That’s a time when you should share very concrete information with your child, said Latif: “You’re talking about the changes in your child’s body, about what sex is and how it happens, the anatomy and also how does pregnancy occur.”
If your child asks, you can certainly touch on birth control—for example, if your child asks, “What do people do if they don’t want to get pregnant?” But that’s more likely to be a topic you’ll discuss when your child is a little more mature and as you have more conversations about body changes and growing interest in the opposite sex.
“Everybody’s different,” said Latif. “Some kids develop a lot earlier and start engaging in high-risk sexual behavior earlier. When you talk about birth control it should definitely be individualized, but you also can’t just assume that it’s not happening. Even some 13- and 14-year-olds are already having sex, while others who are that same age still feel that kissing is gross.”
So at the very least, introduce the birth control conversation at a point when you think your child is ready and continue to readdress it as your child grows and matures.
But how do you know when your child really is ready? “Be a nosy parent,” said Latif. “Know what your child’s interests are, who their friends are. And give them a welcoming environment, a comfortable environment to talk about things that may be awkward.”
If you’re still not comfortable, at least for moms of daughters, your OB/GYN is a great resource. “A lot of my patients bring in their daughters as patients,” said Latif, who advises that every teenage girl should start seeing an OB/GYN between the ages of 13 and 15.
An OB/GYN can help parents communicate facts about birth control, STDs and other topics—and there’s no need for a pelvic exam. An OB/GYN will also have a one-on-one conversation with a teen patient so that she can discuss anything she’d like to keep private, with the caveat that any topic that involves safety—such as self-harm or abuse—will need to be shared.
Another good option for parents of both boys and girls is to turn to a reliable website or book, which the two of you can review. One is Bedsider.org, which reviews responsible decision-making and birth control (just know that some of the content on the site is more appropriate for older teens).
Parents, do you know your birth control options?
Before you can talk to your child about birth control, it’s a good idea to have at least an idea of the options now available.
For boys, it’s easy because there’s just one choice, condoms. For girls, it gets a little more complicated.
Most girls start with birth control pills, because they not only offer benefits of preventing pregnancy but also can help regulate periods. The challenge, however, is for teens to remember to take the pills every day. Some suggestions include storing them next to her toothbrush or using reminder alerts on a phone. A birth control patch also regulates periods but only has to be changed out every week, an easier option if a teen has problems remembering to take a pill every day.
For even longer coverage, the Depo-Provera shot is given every three months and is commonly used in teens since again it eliminates the need to remember to take a daily pill. It also completely stops periods in most girls, although labeling advises not using the shot for longer than two years because of a risk of losing bone density—although that loss is reversible. Another side effect, however, is weight gain, since the shot may increase appetite.
Meanwhile the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Pediatricians actually advise long-acting, reversible contraceptives for teens, especially for those who are at higher risk for pregnancy and may be unreliable with pills. One of those options is the Nexplanon implant, which is placed in the arm and lasts for three years. Another option for teens comfortable with a pelvic exam is an IUD, which is inserted into the uterus and lasts for three to 10 years. The implant and hormonal IUDs can cause lighter and irregular periods, while the copper IUD may make periods a bit heavier.
You may also want to mention the Plan B morning-after pill, which provides emergency contraception in case your child has an unprotected sexual encounter, forgot her pills or a condom broke. However, the pill is only 80 percent effective each time it is used, and should not be used as the primary birth control option.
Finally, no birth control conversation is complete without yet another awkward topic: STDs. None of the birth control options for girls mentioned here will prevent STDs, but condoms, if used correctly, will. Which is why parents of sons need to have the birth control conversation, and girls should also be aware that male partners need to provide protection.
“The main thing, however, is open, ongoing communication so that teenagers feel comfortable asking questions,” said Latif. “Providing your teenage child with the tools they need to make responsible and mature sexual decisions can prevent high-risk sexual behavior, STDs and pregnancy.”