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When Parenting Teenagers, Don’t Assume They’re "Doing It"

Advice on Teenage Dating and Relationship Discussions


Updated May 14, 2014

When Parenting Teenagers, Don’t Assume They’re

Parenting Teenagers

Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Office

Unfortunately, there is no authoritative manual when it comes to parenting teenagers and helping them navigate through the journey of teenage dating. That being said, when teens seek help from their parents about dating, teenage relationships, contraception and/or sex, it is important that parents take advantage of these opportunities and treat them as teachable moments.

When parenting teenagers, one of your ultimate goals is to guide them, so that they can learn how to make responsible and healthy choices now and in the future. And, when it comes to birth control and sex, in order to make informed choices, people must have accurate information. Many teens feel that their parents often make the mistake of assuming that they are having sex just because they ask about contraception. Thus, it is important that as a parent, you don’t succumb to this blunder.

When Parenting Teenagers – Don’t Assume They’re “Doing It”:

Parents, don’t presume that your teen is having sex if he/she comes to you with questions about contraception and sex. A lot of the time, teens are just curious abut these issues. They may also be coming to you because they are trying to make sense out of all the available information... they are trying to figure out the facts from all the myths they may have heard, so they have chosen to turn to somebody they TRUST. Part of parenting teenagers is providing them with the facts about contraception, so they can make educated decisions whenever they choose to become sexually intimate.

Be Clear and Nonjudgmental: Communicating with your teen about sex, contraception and love tends to be more successful when you are clear about how you feel about these issues. When parenting teenagers about these topics, the ideal situation is for you to position yourself as someone your teen feels comfortable asking these questions to as well as being able to explain to your teen how you feel. Essentially, it is best that you are able to honestly and confidently discuss with your teen what you think and why you take this position, yet at the same time, be respectful and able to validate how your teen is feeling. It is also okay to let your teen know that you may not know the answer to their question or are unsure about the topic at hand. You can often achieve these objectives by allowing your discussions to be two-way conversations (and not just you lecturing your teen).

When tees do seek your advice on relationships and sex, it is important that you address your teen’s questions without judgment. Overall, parents would most likely agree that they would rather their teen remain abstinent and delay sexual activity as long as possible. Although you should not be reluctant to express your beliefs, keep in mind that even if you have stressed these values to your teen, it doesn’t mean that he/she will not still at least be curious about sex. Also, during these conversations, your teen doesn’t need to be the only one asking the questions -- try to ask your teen what he/she thinks and assess what they know. By doing this, you can help to clear up any misconceptions while at the same time, conveying respect and concern.

It is Not an "Either-Or" Topic: When having these conversations, remember that information on abstinence and available contraception is not an “either-or” concept. Part of the role of parenting teenagers is to not buy into the notion that discussing contraception encourages teenage sexual behavior. This simply is not the case. Dr. Douglas Kirby, a leading researcher in adolescent health has demonstrated that being exposed to comprehensive sex information (that includes learning about birth control) does not speed up the initiation of sex or increase the frequency of sex -- concerns that many parents fear. He explains,

“Emphasizing both abstinence and protection for those who do [or plan to] have sex is a realistic, effective approach that does not appear to confuse young people.”

Teens may have every intention of remaining abstinent, and parents can help arm their teens with ways to maintain abstinence. You can remind teens that they are in charge of their decisions and encourage them not to allow anyone to pressure them into doing anything that they don’t feel comfortable about or ready for. If your teen is feeling that in order to keep a boyfriend/girlfriend, he/she has to have sex, be direct and explain if sex is the price of being in that relationship, then it is time to find somebody else. But let’s also be realistic, we know that abstinence vows are broken. When this happens, teens need to know how to protect themselves.

Abstinence-Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education: Accurate and reliable contraception information is a must. If your teen doesn’t get this from you, he/she may turn to less trustworthy sources. Know that abstinence-only sex education does not keep teens from having sex. Mathematica Policy Research shows that teens who are only exposed to abstinence-only education as compared to teens who had no sex education are:

  • No more likely to abstain from sex.
  • Just as likely to engage in unprotected sex.
  • Tend to have the same number of sexual partners.
  • Have almost identical ages for the first time they have sex.
  • Have more misconceptions about condom use and less likely to know that condoms can protect against many STDs.
There is no evidence that abstinence-only sex education is effective at reducing the rate of teen sexual activity. The Guttmacher Institute attributes increases in teen pregnancy rates to a decline in contraceptive use by sexually active teenagers as a result of sex education programs aimed exclusively at promoting abstinence. So, parents, abstinence-only speeches are just not effective. Dr. Kirby’s research has established that only comprehensive sex-ed programs (ones that discuss both abstinence and contraception) result in delayed sexual initiation in teens as well as lower number of sexual partners. He also found that when teens have knowledge about birth control, there is an increased likelihood that teens will use contraception when they choose to engage in sex. His study states,
"There does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence... that abstinence programs actually have no impact on teen sexual behavior."

Encouraging Healthy Sexual Choices: If your teen requests your assistance in seeking birth control (like the pill or another hormonal method), it is your choice as a parent to decide what to do. However, keep in mind that many teens are determined and will try to seek out help from other resources if necessary. If your teen is engaging in sexual behavior, telling them to stop may not be a realistic option. Remind teens that they are in charge of their own life. Tell them not to let anyone pressure them into being in a relationship until they are absolutely sure they are ready. You can also reiterate to teens that they can always change their minds if they chose to have sex and realize later that they regret it... let them know that saying “yes” once doesn't mean they can’t say “no” later.

Turning your back on your teen may make it that he/she does not turn to you in the future, perhaps if things become more serious (like an unintended pregnancy). Encouraging safe and healthy sexual decisions when parenting teenagers will help set your teen on a lifelong path of smarter sexual choices and outcomes. Plus, this helps to keep the channels of communication open, so teens feel they can come to you in the future if they have more questions.


Guttmacher Institute. (January 2010). "U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Birth, and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity." Accessed 2/15/2012.

Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases." Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Accessed 2/15/2012.

Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., Quay, L., Wheeler, J. & Clark, M. (April 2007). "Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs: Final Report." Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. Accessed via private subscription. 2/15/2012.

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