MONDAY, Dec. 7, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to talking about sex, parents are a few paces behind their kids.
Too often, the birds-and-the-bees conversation occurs after, and not before, kids start experimenting sexually, possibly in risky ways, reports a study in the January issue of Pediatrics.
This revelation comes despite American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that health-care providers and parents talk to their kids about sex and sexuality early in life.
"Parents are a little behind the 8 ball. They underestimate their children's sexual knowledge and interest and behaviors," said Dr. Lawrence Friedman, director of adolescent medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"It's a hard subject for many parents to broach, but the level of sexual activity in many kids has moved up in terms of initiation. It's younger," added Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "Talking about it is very helpful in terms of disease prevention, unwanted pregnancy and even issues around relationships."
Although there were suspicions that parents lagged behind their kids, previous studies had asked adults to remember when they first had sex and when their parents talked to them, said study author Megan Beckett, a social scientist with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
For this study, Beckett and her colleagues surveyed 141 middle-class and upper middle-class parents and their children, aged 13 to 17, in more of a real-time scenario. "We went back about four times over a year's period," Beckett said.
Starting with questions about girls bodies and menstruation, the research team asked parents and children about kissing and handholding, birth control, refusing sex, oral sex and intercourse, all related to different developmental stages of the kids.
More than half of children had experienced genital touching before "the talk" about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and condom use, the researchers found.
"More than 40 percent of adolescents are having intercourse before parents have talked to them about STD symptoms, condom use, choosing birth control and what to do if your partner refuses to use a condom," Beckett said. "That's a pretty large number."
About two-thirds of boys said they had not talked with a parent about how to use a condom before having intercourse.
And conversations with boys almost always took place later than talks with girls.
"This is a flag to not put it off, and this is especially the case with boys," Beckett said.
Denial, naivety and any number of other emotions on the part of the parents may be playing into this trend, Friedman said.
"They reminisce that when they were in the seventh grade, they didn't do that kind of thing," he said. "The fact of the matter is that this is 25 years later, and this is what is going on. You have to be knowledgeable and prepared to prepare children for when they become teenagers and have to confront sexual kinds of activities."
Other experts agree. "We live in an R-rated society, and our kids need our PG guidance," said Dr. Frank Biro, head of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "If you want to instill knowledge and values, then you need to be talking to your kids earlier, not later."
Here are some tips on when and how to talk to your kids:
- Figure that the age you think is appropriate is probably too old. "If parents think that they should broach the topic at x age, they should subtract two years and do it at that age instead," Friedman said.
- Talk to your physician and scour resources from the Internet, libraries and schools about how to broach the subject and what to say.
- Take the lead. "Don't expect your child to come and ask an important question about a topic that they're embarrassed about or that they don't know their parents would be willing to talk to them about," Friedman said. "This will also help gauge how knowledgeable their teenager or child is."
- After you've talked, "step back and ask your kids questions and pay attention to what they're interested in," Hilfer said.
- Make sure your conversation is developmentally appropriate to the child, Biro said. Talking about fellatio with a 6-year-old is probably not appropriate. Talking about boys liking girls and handholding would be for kids 8 or 9 years or possibly even 6 years old. "If you haven't talked to your kids by the time they're 12, you need to get on the stick," said Hilfer.
Planned Parenthood has more on how to talk to kids about sex.