MONDAY, March 3, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Parents may not want to hear this, but new research suggests it's not a good idea to just have that one big "sex talk" with your kids.
Instead, the study recommends that you encourage an ongoing dialogue about sex with your children -- even if it makes you uncomfortable -- so your kids are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
"It's important that parents set a foundation early on in talking with their kids about sex so that it becomes part of the norm in their household," said study lead author Steven Martino, a behavioral scientist at RAND in Pittsburgh. "As children grow and have experiences, you want them to feel it's natural to talk to their parents. When asked where they'd like to get their information, kids say from their parents more than anyone else."
Martino said he realizes that some parents feel uncomfortable talking about sex with their children. And, he said, it's OK to let your children know that you're uncomfortable, but explain that it's such an important topic that you need to talk about sex anyway.
Martino's study included 312 teens and their parents. Both parents and adolescents completed baseline questionnaires, and the researchers had the teens complete their surveys in private rooms and assured them that their parents would not be given any of the information they provided.
The parents were then randomly divided into two groups, with half attending an eight-week worksite-based parenting intervention class called "Talking Parents, Healthy Teens," designed to improve communication with their teens. The other parents just completed the survey and received no intervention.
Follow-up surveys were completed at one week, three months and nine months after the intervention began. The surveys were designed to assess 22 sex-related topics, such as the consequences of sex, how to make decisions about when to have sex, how to say no if you didn't want to have sex, how well condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and more.
The researchers then assessed the breadth of communications -- how many of those 22 subjects the parents had discussed with their teens, and how often.
They found that when teens and their parents had more conversations -- repetition -- teens reported feeling closer to their parents and felt they could talk more openly with their parents about sex and other topics. A greater breadth of communication was associated with a perceived ease of discussing sex between parent and child, according to the study.
Results of the study were published in the March issue of Pediatrics.
"You can't just have the big sex talk once. Discussions need to be ongoing," said Dr. Lea deFrancisci Lis, a child psychiatrist at New York University's Child Study Center in New York City.
DeFrancisci Lis pointed out that, like most studies, this one didn't establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship. "We can't say that kids whose parents talk about sex openly with them will have less sex," she said. "But, research has shown an association between parents who are more open and kids who wait longer to have sex, have less teen pregnancy and less sexually transmitted diseases, so communication is really important."
Both experts recommend starting to talk about sex at a young age, properly naming the body parts. DeFrancisci Lis said that when a new sibling is on the way, that's a great time to discuss where babies come from. For parents who are really uncomfortable talking about sex, books can help open discussions, she said.
Martino added that watching TV or movies with your child can provide teaching situations and may make the dialogue feel more natural. The same goes for some of the lyrics in teen music, he said.
To learn more, visit 4parents.gov.