Sex and youth: plenty to talk about

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Two studies out this week about sexuality and youth underscore a point once made by Dr. Joseph Hagan, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and a practicing pediatrician. Talking about when he would recommend that parents broach the uncomfortable, yet inevitable, subject of sex with their kids. Early, he suggested. There is no specific age at which a child is suddenly ready for “the talk,” of course, and knowing when the moment is ripe is down to the specific child and parent. Yet, if parents are putting off that chat because they think it’s not relevant yet, he warned, “The talk is usually about four to six months too late.”

Findings published in the journal Pediatrics, and reported on by Alice Park for TIME, echoe Hagan’s words. In the analysis of 141 families that included children between the ages of 13 to 17, researchers found that, by the time parents got around to the sexuality sermon, 40% of the kids had already had intercourse. That terrible timing is particularly troublesome considering that heaps of research show that kids actually want to learn about sex from their parents, and are in fact more likely to delay sex and engage in safe sex if they’ve discussed it with a parent. As Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and an author of the new study, told Park:

“The results didn’t surprise me… But there’s something about having actual data that serves as a wake-up call to parents who are not talking to their kids about very important issues until later than we think would be best.”

Some more actual data that may be relevant for concerned parents are findings published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. As reported by the L.A. Times, a study of 386 urban girls between the ages of 13 and 17 found that, most had first sexual intercourse between the ages of 13 and 15, and by age 15, one quarter already had at least one sexually transmitted disease. The study, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, found that most adolescent girls tended to develop sexually transmitted diseases within two years of first intercourse. Additionally, many of the teens experienced recurring infections of chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis, often within six months of a previous infection.

The findings of the second study emphasize the need to begin STD testing earlier, and ensure that tests are carried out regularly when an initial infection has been detected, the researchers say. Detecting and treating sexually transmitted diseases early is particularly important in light of the potential long-term consequences, which can include serious pelvic infections and even infertility.

These latest studies add to a wealth of research that underscores the importance of parents discussing both the physical and emotional realities of sexual relationships with their children from an early age. Yet, experts are careful to point out, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving a comprehensive breakdown of birth control methods while your child is still in Pampers. Instead, it means opening the subject for discussion at a young age, and revisiting it as your child grows and matures. Hagan says he begins a basic talk about “private parts” by around age 6, telling his patients that private areas are expressly theirs. “You are in charge of them,” he tells them. “Nobody gets to look at them or touch them or unless you say it’s OK.” And, parents, he says, should feel free take it from there.