by Skye Schulte, MS, MPH and Rebecca J. Stahl, MA
As a parent, it may be difficult to accept that your children are sexual—and even harder to think of them engaging in behaviors that would put them at risk for diseases like chlamydia or gonorrhea. Below are strategies you can use when talking to your children about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
While you may feel uncomfortable discussing sex with your child, it is too important a topic to ignore. You can actually set the groundwork for this discussion when your child is young, for example, by being open to questions your child may have about their body. Building a trusting relationship over the years will make all the difference when it comes to bringing up this sensitive issue.
Also, keep in mind that you do not have to have one big discussion about sex and STDs. Having short, meaningful talks can be very helpful and give your child something to think about. For conversation starters, look to what is going on in your child's world. For example, if a teenage character on your child's favorite show is pregnant, this can lead to sharing thoughts about unprotected sex.
What if you do not know a lot about STDs? Now is a good time to get the facts from reliable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Learn about the most common STDs, risk factors, symptoms, treatments, and ways to prevent these infections. Talk to your child about what you have learned, using language they clearly understand. Also, if your child would like to read more on their own, provide them additional reliable information, such as printed materials or useful websites.
Remember that scare tactics are not helpful. Trying to frighten your child about the dangers of STDs may make them feel uncomfortable talking to you about their concerns. But it is important that you work to correct any misconceptions they may have about how STDs are spread. You may want to share ideas that you used to have about sex and choices that you made when you were younger.
Feel free to ask how your child feels about sexual activity. Questions like "Do you think it is okay for a person to have unprotected sex?" may be good starting points to learn about your child's views on sex. This can also lead to a discussion about ways to prevent STDs.
In addition, get advice from family and friends who have raised teens. Their doctor can also be a source of support and encouragement when going through this normal, but challenging time in your child's life.
In addition to having honest conversations about sex and STDs, you can support your child's overall well-being by:
Your child should have regular physical exams where your child's doctor can help decide if there are any tests that need to be done. It is very important that your child has access to confidential healthcare and has a doctor they feel comfortable with. Allow your child to have time alone with their doctor so they can address any concerns privately.
During the physical exams, your child should get the recommended vaccines for their age group. For example, there is a vaccine to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV, one of the most common STDs, causes genital warts, and some strains can lead to cervical and other cancers in both males and females. Hepatitis B is another infection that can be spread through sexual activity. This vaccine is normally given to newborns, but older children and teens who have not been vaccinated can receive the series of shots.
If your child is diagnosed with an STD:
Your child needs to know that you support them and want them to be healthy. You can help your child make good choices about sex by being available for talks and by being ready to listen.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sex and U—The Society of Obstetricians and
Gynaecologists of Canada
Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine
How to talk about sex with your teen. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/dating-sex/Pages/How-to-Talk-About-Sex-With-Your-Teen.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2017.
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/child-adolescent.html. Updated October 5, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017.
STDs. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated October 2014. Accessed November 17, 2017.
Talk with your teen about preventing STDs. Health Finder website. Available at: https://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/health-conditions-and-diseases/hiv-and-other-stds/talk-with-your-teen-about-preventing-stds. Updated January 4, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017.
Last reviewed November 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 3/6/2014