Advice for parents about the signs that your child may be sexually active and how to talk about it from parenting expert Jan Faull, MEd, plus sex education resources for teenagers and parents.

By Jan Faull, MEd
Illustration by Emma Darvick

Teens date. Sometimes whether you're ready for it or not. And if you're not, what comes next can be downright terrifying:

Kissing. Hugging. Holding hands. Shorter skirts. More revealing shirts.

The signs your son or daughter may be having sex are not hard to spot. But knowing how to handle the situation is anything but easy. If you're afraid your teen is having sex, here's my advice: You cannot leave this situation to chance.

It's best to bring up the issue of premature and premarital sex, and voice your concerns. Talk of your hopes and dreams for your child's future. Explain that physical and emotional issues related to sex — and this includes the possibility of a baby — could ruin her future plans. If you're reluctant to bring up the topic, find someone who will. This person could be a family friend, counselor, or trusted relative.

To forbid your daughter to have sex or to deny her contraception is naive. To think that you can watch your daughter and her boyfriend at all times is unrealistic. Teens are very skilled about finding a way to satisfy their sexual urges. Let her know the message her clothing conveys; it suggests she's interested in revealing her body and possibly satisfying her sexual desires.

Telling a sexually interested or active teenager to not engage in sexual activity is like shoveling sand against the adolescent tide. Once a child goes through puberty, his or her body is equipped to procreate, and it's difficult to reverse their interest in sex once puberty takes hold.

Besides being risky physically (because of sexually transmitted diseases and the concern of pregnancy), an intimate sexual relationship is often beyond the emotional wherewithal of most teens. Most teens don't consider this when they are out to satisfy their sexual drive. You must also prepare and protect you teenager from the burden of the emotions related to a sexual relationship.

Today the attitude of many parents of teens is a "don't ask, don't tell" approach. If parents don't see signs, then it's out of the parent's mind. Such an approach is irresponsible. Every parent needs to address sexuality issues with his or her teen. And if you are seeing signs, there is no way you can let the situation alone.

Despite the need to open up dialogue with your daughter about her clothes and public displays of affection, it's important to let her know that you love her no matter what. It's not easy, particularly because your daughter might scoff or blow up at you. Bear up nevertheless. Proceed with love and determination to make your points regardless of how you fear your daughter will respond.

Sex Education Resources for Parents and Teens

When it comes to talking to kids about sex, parents simply can't provide too many resources. And since teens today are famously Web-savvy, sharing these sexual health Web sites with them is a nonthreatening way to let them safely explore sex stats and articles on their own.

But why should teens read about sex topics by themselves? "With the media portraying sexuality more and more, with teens at younger ages having sex, and with all of the sexual 'trends' being explored, teens need viable information," says Susan Falcone, National Board Certified teacher and Family Studies department chair at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

Falcone says that the "garden of misinformation" (i.e., "I heard that that...") is still the only source for many teens.

"I've been teaching sex education for 37 years and I have seen only a modicum of progress in their knowledge, while their experiences have widened well beyond their parents'. They are still embarrassed to talk about sex with their parents and parents are still embarrassed to approach the topic with their teens," Falcone says. "More and more, schools are being restricted as to what is deemed 'appropriate' to discuss in sex education classes."

Many of the following sites are sex-positive — they don't promote abstinence as the only option for teens, but rather discuss how to make responsible choices regarding sex. Visit these sites as a parent, approve the content, then share them with your child:

Teens for Planned Parenthood

The teen outreach site of Planned Parenthood Federation of America offers diagrams, Q&As, and articles about sex, pregnancy, relationships, and what happens to teen bodies. The voice of the site is that of a wise teen friend, making it approachable for the middle- and high-school set.

What Parents Like: Reproductive health professionals answer girls' questions in live chat rooms during scheduled appearances.

What Teens Like: An interactive, easy-to-understand animated movie about the menstrual cycle with links to articles on what to do about missed periods, surviving menstrual discomfort, and more.

I Wanna Know

I Wanna Know is the teen division of the American Social Health Association, a nongovernmental-funded group that works across the country to distribute information about sexually transmitted diseases. Bulleted information give teens a quick look at specific sexual health considerations and STDs.

What Parents Like: A listing of questions to ask tattoo artists or body piercers to ensure an STD-free experience.

What Teens Like: A specific area concerning emotional changes during puberty -- an infrequently discussed topic!

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

Sex has consequences — that's the message of National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit organization. The group aims to "improve the well-being of children, youth, and families by reducing teen pregnancy" by using in- and after-school programs to delay teens' first sexual experiences. The site has separate areas for parents, professionals, and even religious leaders, covering a wide base of adults who influence tweens and teens.

What Parents Like: Searchable city and county birth data helps parents see what role teen pregnancy plays in their communities.

What Teens Like: Downloadable audio and video clips of TV shows, public service announcements, and mini movies with safe-sex and abstinence-related topics.

GirlsHealth

Written in accessible language for teen readers, GirlsHealth is sponsored by the National Women's Health Information Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. Teens can safely click around the "Body" and "Relationships" sections to read about their physical development, first periods, first sexual relationships, and STDs.

What Parents Like: A specific area that discusses how parents can broach the topic of puberty and sex with their teens.

What Teens Like: The "Free Stuff!" area lets girls download girl-positive Instant Messenger icons, computer desktop wallpaper, and calendars.

It's Your Sex Life

It's Your Sex Life is an offshoot of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about major healthcare issues that face our country. It's Your Sex Life calls itself "Your Guide to Safe & Responsible Sex," and offers teens articles and fact sheets on pregnancy and contraception, HIV and STDs, and communicating effectively with their sex partners.

What Parents Like: An interactive quiz that informs teens about recognizing STDs and taking their effects seriously.

What Teens Like: A specific area focused on talking with partners about sex — including different real-life (not corny textbook) scenarios and how teens could react to them.

Scarleteen

A sounding board for young adults embracing their sexuality, Scarleteen contains articles on menstruation, self exams, contraception, relationships (gay and straight) and anatomy. Scarleteen also invites teens to "Ask a Sexpert" their most embarrassing questions or talk on chat boards about topics such as "Sexual Ethics and Politics" and "Body & Soul."

What Parents Like: "Am I Ready for Sex?" checklist.

What Teens Like: A very fresh, honest approach to what's happening to their bodies during puberty, and very candid posting boards where they can connect with other teens.

Sex, Etc.

Sex, Etc. is a major collection of articles by and for teens on topics ranging from deciding whether to have sex to teen parenting to body image to abortion. (The site and accompanying print newsletter are the products of the National Teen-to-Teen Sexuality Education Project, which was developed by the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.) Polls, chat boards, and a sex glossary make this a candid place for teens to talk with other teens about sex and sexuality issues.

What Parents Like: Consistent monitoring by the Network for Family Life Education, and periodic studies regarding the success of Sex, Etc.

What Teens Like: Interested teens — especially those with strong opinions on sexuality — are invited to apply for staff writer positions for this digital magazine.

Coalition for Positive Sexuality

This is the teen-focused Web site of the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, a nonprofit organization that encourages teens to demand honest sex education from their parents and educators. The group's "Just Say Yes" campaign encourages teens to look at sex as a positive experience when done responsibly. It also offers fact sheets on topics such as "What's Safe Sex," "What's Birth Control," and "What If I'm Gay?"

What Parents Like: The "Just Say Yes" campaign translated in Spanish.

What Teens Like: A very inclusive approach to discussing sexuality. Much of the site discusses respecting different attitudes toward straight, gay, and bisexual teens and adults.

YouthResource

A peer-to-peer advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning tweens and teens, YouthResource is committed to providing young visitors facts about the GLBTQ community and the health issues affecting those in it. The site has an extensive network of Peer Educators -- youth ages 13-24 from across the country — who answer individual and frequently asked questions by visitors.

What Parents Like: An advocacy section where visitors can sign petitions for federal program funding, read about GLBTQ-related internships, and read about local and national events.

What Teens Like: Specific communities tailored to members' interests or backgrounds — Youth of Color, Deaf Queer Youth, questioning youth -- where members can speak out about GLBTQ issues.

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)

Over 30 years ago, one mother joined her son at a gay rights parade in New York City. Soon, she organized a support group for the families of other parade-attendees in a local church basement, and today Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is hundreds of thousands of members strong. The site is a comprehensive resource for individuals looking to come out and seek the support of their families; it includes a local chapter finder, coming-out stories, and a local and national initiative listing.

What Parents Like: A weekly e-mail newsletter that delivers up-to-the-minute happenings across the country that specifically affect GLBTQ individuals.

What Teens Like: A thorough frequently asked questions area that gives honest advice to queries like: "Is there something wrong with being gay?" "Can gay people have families?" "Why do people come out?"

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in The Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

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