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Gone Baby Gone

The risks of early sexual behavior (and how to talk to your teen about them)

By Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed.

Of the many potential downsides of early intimate sexual behavior among teens is the regret that often follows. Indeed, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the majority of young people who have had sex wish they had waited.

There are other problems to worry about as well, including the fact that a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that one in four teenage girls ages 14-19 has a sexually transmitted disease. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, in her book You’re Teaching My Child What?, says that 34 percent of girls are sexually active by age fifteen and that by ninth grade 20 percent of teens have had oral sex.

Interestingly, new research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University points to changing gender roles in sexual behavior with teen girls 16 to 19 years old more likely than boys the same age to say they have ever participated in:

  • sexual intercourse (31 percent to 22 percent)
  • intimate sexual behavior other than intercourse (40 percent to 29 percent)
  • drinking alcohol (41 percent to 27 percent)

The short- and long-term consequences of such behavior are among the least understood outcomes of adolescent decision-making. One thing, however, is clear: parents who talk with teenagers about sex make a difference. For example, according to research from the national SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions), more than half of teens whose parents provide a strong level of guidance say they avoid sexual activity (52 percent) compared with those whose parents do not (27 percent).

With patience and no small amount of courage, parents can help their children better understand the physical and emotional risks of sexual behavior, the responsibilities that come with mutually caring and respectful relationships, standards for acceptable behavior, and the role that alcohol and other drugs can play in impairing judgment when it comes to making decisions about sex. Learning self-control, even over powerful sexual urges, is an important part of psycho-social development. It teaches young people how to delay gratification and certainly not to seek it at the expense of someone else’s physical, emotional, or social well-being. More to the point, it is healthy for kids to postpone sexual activity until they are certain that they understand – and are ready to accept – all of the potential outcomes that can result.

So, what to say? Here are some conversation starters you might try with your teen.

  • There are a lot of changes going on now. During adolescence it seems like everything is different, from how we interact with friends, to how we feel about our parents, to what’s happening to our bodies.
  • Many teens wonder about their sexuality and what to do with sexual feelings, as well as when it is the right time to become sexually active with someone else.
  • What do you think is right for you?
  • Sometimes young people can feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior before they feel they are ready. Do you know someone who has had to deal with that?
  • It’s important to know that you are in charge of your body and what to do with it! Whatever decisions you make, they should be decisions you want to make.
  • There can be a lot at stake when it comes to sex and one decision can have long-term or even lasting consequences. What do you think some of those may be?
  • Many young people confuse sexuality with sex. Sexuality is an important part of identity formation and helps us learn ‘who we are.’ But that doesn’t mean having to have sex.
  • Maybe you and I, together, can try to figure out when you feel you are old enough, and mature enough, to engage in sexual behavior.

These can be difficult conversations to have for sure. But with teen sexual behavior closely linked to unwanted pregnancies and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases – not to mention stress and depression (SADD) – parents have a vital role to play in guiding their children’s behavior. Maybe now is the time to seize that opportunity … before it’s gone.

Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD and director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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