If talking about sex and sexually transmitted infections with your teen makes you nervous, you aren’t alone. It can be hard to know where to start, but it’s important to make sure your teen knows how to stay safe.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 25 percent of teenagers will have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) before they graduate from high school.

“One of the problems with most sexually transmitted infections is that you have the infection but you may not have symptoms,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. “However, once infected, you’re highly contagious. And if you’re out and about in the community, you’re spreading it.”

STIs are on the rise
Lane County Public Health reports the number of syphilis cases across lane county has increased 1,100 percent in the last five years, from a few cases per year to an average of over 50. Gonorrhea cases are also up approximately 600-700 percent. And while both infections are curable, the number of Lane County cases of HIV, which has no cure, has risen an estimated 50-60 percent since 2012.

“This is troubling for a few reasons,” says Lane County Health Officer Dr. Patrick Luedtke. “Up until 2012, we could expect a small, easily trackable number of cases that were confined primarily to men who have sex with men. But what this information shows us is our new average is in the double digits and spread nearly as equally between men and women. This creates the potential for the disease to increase its footprint within our communities and infect more people at an ever-increasing rate.”

Identify opportunities to talk with your teen
Your teen may be getting messages about sex, relationships, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections from a variety of sources, including friends, teachers, health care providers, television and social media. Some of these messages may be more accurate than others.

Do not assume your teen’s health education class includes the information you want your child to know. And don’t assume your teens will make safe choices on their own. They need your guidance.

“Talk with your child about preventing sexually transmitted infections, but please don’t just talk to them about abstinence. Talk to them about that first—hammer that home—but do not put your head in the sand. Talk with your kids about condoms and how to use them correctly,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

The best time to broach the subject with your teen is when you have his or her attention, such as when you’re riding in the car, or watching a relevant TV show or movie.

“You can start the conversation by saying, ‘So, honey, what did you think about that?’ Or ‘What did you take away from that scene or that movie?'” says Dr. Luedtke. “The bottom line is, this is not about the birds and the bees talk. It’s not about a single talk. Teens can’t just hear things one time and change their behavior.”

The Centers for Disease Control offers additional tips for parents:

  • Be open and relaxed. Talking about sex, relationships and the prevention of HIV, STIs and pregnancy may not always be comfortable or easy, but encourage your teen to ask you questions, and be prepared to give fair and honest answers. This will keep the door open for both of you to bring up the topic. It’s OK to say you’re feeling uncomfortable or that you don’t have all the answers.
  • Avoid overreacting. When your teen shares personal information with you, keep in mind that he or she may be asking for your input or wants to know how you feel. Let your teen know that you value his or her opinion, even if it is different from yours.
  • Provide opportunities for conversations between your teen and health care providers. By taking your teen to regular, preventive care appointments and allowing time alone with the provider, you create opportunities for your teen to talk confidentially with doctors or nurses about health issues that may be of concern, including HIV, STIs and pregnancy.

Talking with your teen about sex and sexually transmitted infections does have an impact. In surveys conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens report that their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex—more than friends, siblings or the media.