Talking With Teens About STIs

An open conversation can bolster prevention efforts.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

Why Talk to Your Teen About Sexually Transmitted Infection?

Many parents are concerned with the health and safety of their children, but may when it comes to sexually transmitted infections, it can be hard to talk about prevention. Parents tell their children to look both ways for traffic before crossing the street. When a child falls down, a caring parent picks him up, gives a reassuring hug and perhaps puts a bandage on to make it better. These are simple ways to show you care. But when it comes to talking with your child about sex and the risks associated with unprotected sex, parents may not know how or when to have “the talk.” Many parents never received high quality sexuality education themselves.

Times have changed a lot since many parents first learned about sex. Today's youth are much more likely to access online pornography and may be exposed to sexual images without adequate information about STI prevention. This is of great concern because in many cases, a sexually transmitted infection causes no visible symptoms. However, it is very important to note that even when there are no obvious symptoms of an STI, damage to the reproductive organs can still occur. Silence, or lack of awareness, can have devastating effects on the body, mind, and emotional wellbeing of a person. Education about sex, on the other hand, can help adolescents make responsible choices.

Sexual risk taking among teens happens at levels that may surprise parents.

By the spring of their senior year, about two thirds of high school students have had sex, putting them at risk for pregnancy and contracting an STI. Young people age 15 to 24 make up nearly half of the new cases of STIs each year. At the same time, the numbers that support the effectiveness of sexual education in preventing STI and pregnancy are promising. Some research shows that rates of getting an STI decline after comprehensive sexuality education is implemented. Though many parents are afraid that talking with their kids about sex will “put ideas in their heads” and increase their teens’ sexual behavior. There is no evidence to support this myth.

Parents are their children’s first and most important educators. While it may be awkward or embarrassing to discuss sexual health with adolescents, this willingness to be brave, open and honest can help to prevent a number of problems: teen pregnancy, STIs, sterility, certain types of cancer and early death. If your child has not yet had sex, or has already had one or more sex partners, if s/he has contracted an STI, or is at risk of doing so, there is no time like right now to show you still care about her/his life-long health and safety. Here are some more facts that you can bring to the table.

How STIs Affect Teens

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common STIs among teens are chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Both chlamydia and gonorrhea are bacterial infections that can be treated with antibiotics but can cause serious health problems if left untreated. Genital herpes and HPV infection are caused by viruses and cannot be treated directly, but there are treatments for the symptoms.

How to Talk About Preventing and STI

Talking to your teen about sex may be uncomfortable. However, you do not need to know everything about STIs to talk to your teen. Abstinence and limiting the number of sexual partners are the best ways to keep from getting an STI. Encourage your teen to delay sexual behavior until they are older and more mature and to talk to you first if they decide to become sexually active.

When you talk to your teen, place STIs within the context of responsible decision- making. Explain that birth control, like the pill, does not prevent an STI. Condoms are the best way to reduce the risk of getting STIs when sexually active. Show your teen how to use latex or polyurethane condoms to reduce the chances of contracting an STI. Use two fingers or a banana to replicate a penis. Read the section of this handout about the male condom to know what to say to your teen.

Before talking to your teen, practice what you want to say with another adult. Ask for feedback about what you are saying as well as your body language, including facial expressions. Identify uncomfortable topics. With the other adult, practice talking about these topics until your comfort increases.

When talking to your teen, use the following steps as a model to respond to questions (American Social Health Association):

Clarify what your teen is asking, i.e. “Do you want to know about…?”
Think about the best way to communicate your message, including the right words and body language.
After you have decided what to say, give accurate information. If you do not know the answer, tell your teen that you do not know. Together, go to the web-resources at the end of this handout to research the answer. By learning together, you reinforce open communication.

Ask your teen to think about situations in which they may be tempted to have sex.  Talk about how peer pressure affects the decision to have sex. Together, identify ways to either not have sex or to reduce the risk of STI infection.    

What to Say When Your Teen Gets an STI

People often feel ashamed when diagnosed with an STI.  Getting an STI does not mean that your teen is a bad person. Many good people get an STI. Talk to your teen about how they feel about the diagnosis and reassure that their feelings are normal.

Make sure that your teen gets good medical treatment. Many STIs are curable with antibiotics. If your teen’s physician prescribes a medication, ensure your teen takes all of the pills as prescribed. Some STIs are not curable; however, there are treatments available to reduce the symptoms. Talk to your teen’s healthcare provider about the best treatment options. 

To prevent future infections, talk to your teen about their recent sexual history. Your teen’s recent sex partners will need to be tested and treated. Work with your school counselor and nurse to develop a way of notifying your teen’s sexual partners while protecting your teen’s privacy.

Most importantly, help your teen to identify what behaviors put them at risk of infection. Talk about ways to reduce their risk in the future by thinking of situations where they may be sexually active. For each situation, identify ways to reduce risk. You and your teens may also go to websites that have factual information, listed here:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

American Social Health Association (adults) (teens)


Lasser, J., *Wilkerson, M., & *Dennison, A. (2010).  Talking to your teen about sexually transmitted infections. In A. Canter, L. Paige, & S. Shaw (Eds.), Helping Children at Home and School III: Handouts for Families and Educators.  Bethesda, MD: NASP.