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Teens and STDs: How to Start the Conversation

Shari Bender


Sexually transmitted diseases, also known as STDs: It’s not exactly the conversation of choice between most parents and teens — but it should be! Teens and STDs are a major public health concern.

Teens are having sexual contact, whether we like it or not. Young adults are also catching STDs at an alarming rate, even if they are not having so-called ‘traditional’ intercourse.

A little rusty on your STD knowledge? Here are some basics: 

  • STDs are sometimes known as STIs, which stands for Sexually Transmitted Infections. 
  • Common STDs in teens include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV, short for human papillomavirus. 
  • Having an STI means there is an infection but not yet a disease. 
  • Some STIs can be treated or managed with medication, but may only be effective up to a certain point. 
  • If your young adult is familiar with STI symptoms, they can test and may be able to treat as soon as possible to help prevent long-term negative effects.

How to Talk With Your Teen About STDs

Talking to your teen about STD prevention and safe sexual contact are two key pieces to the discussion. 

Many younger teens may not even know how you catch an STD. It’s up to you to let them know that intercourse isn’t the only way STDs can spread. For some diseases, like herpes or HPV, any intimate contact can pass on infections — even skin-to-skin contact. You will need to be prepared to spell this out for them and state the obvious. 

Pushing abstinence can be counterproductive and unrealistic. But stating it as fact, that abstinence is the only way to be 100% sure to not get an STD, is accurate and important information to share. Help the young adult in your life understand things like that although condoms and safer sex practices reduce risk, they do not eliminate the risk.

Of course, the idea of having “the talk” can be scary. Sometimes parents have difficulty seeing their offspring as sexual beings — and vice versa! That may make it particularly challenging to talk to your teen about STDs.  

Here are some tips to help get the conversation started with the young adults in your life, ages 15-24.

Find a Good Time

There is almost never the perfect time to talk about things like genital herpes and HIV with your child. Having the conversation before or while your teen is sexually active will give them more tools in order to make better choices. 

How early is too early? Depends on who you ask. Teens are having sexual relations at an earlier age, Maybe it’s because of sexualization through social media, but it is happening. Putting your parental head in the sand can give you temporary relief, but it can have lasting repercussions for your child. 

Pick a time when your teen doesn’t have to rush to soccer practice or to a Sweet 16. Weekday evenings and weekend mornings often work well for busy students. 

And don’t underestimate the power of the car ride. Something about sitting side by side and avoiding that potentially awkward eye contact can work wonders for taboo and difficult topics like teens and STDs.

Get Started and Get to the Point

Dragging out a potentially uncomfortable conversation can just prolong the agony. Get straight to the point of the discussion. Some parents like to have notes to guide them through basic bullet points. And believe it or not, just bringing up the topic is a big first step in letting your kids know that sexual topics are topics that can be discussed. 

Sharing a personal anecdote can be a good way to start the conversation since it can show your young adult that you are willing to be vulnerable and honest with them. Remember that teens particularly in the LGBTQIA space may face unique concerns and may benefit from access to things like PrEP, a drug to prevent HIV. Wherever your teen falls on the sexuality spectrum, teens and STDs is a topic relevant to them. 

Do Your Research on Teens and STDs

The CDC website has helpful factsheets like Condoms Dos and Don’ts, as do various public health sites, and it can be a good idea to share those websites with your teen. Finding a few safe sex TikToks to support your points can be a game changer as far as parental street cred and your teen actually being more open to listening to you. 

A serious topic can certainly benefit from lighter moments. You can pull out your phone mid-conversation and share a relevant TikTok. Sending an email after your talk with a short list (3-5) links can also be a great way to allow your young adult private time to think about and absorb what was discussed while encouraging them to explore other questions. 

Chances are your kid will, and probably already has, Googled info on the topic. It is important for them to recognize that the wisdom of Reddit may not always be the best or most accurate source of info.  

Be Ready

Hopefully, you have opened up a line of communication for a more comfortable conversation surrounding an often uncomfortable topic. 

Be ready for questions like “Mom, where can I get the Monkeypox vaccine,” without batting an eye. Think about buying your teen condoms or encouraging a clinic or doctor’s visit to discuss birth control. Sexual health is an important part of our healthcare routine. As parents, it is our job to love, listen and guide no matter how old they are — up to and including the blossoming sexuality years.

Good luck!

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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