a woman who wishes she had understood contraceptives

Discussing Contraceptives with Your Teen

Is the thought of having “the talk” with your teen about sex filling you with angst? These days “that talk” includes the topic of contraceptives, and keeping up with all the options can feel overwhelming. Like many parents, you may feel inadequate, awkward, and nervous, but it’s important to remember that a loving and informed caregiver is perhaps the most qualified person to present these facts; if you’re reading this article right now, it suggests that you are probably the right person for the job.

Experts recommend taking an ongoing-conversation approach rather than having just one heavy discussion. According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), 83% of teenagers are afraid to ask their parents about sex, so if you’re a parent with whom your teenager feels comfortable asking questions, then the groundwork has already been laid for a successful dialogue. Being an “askable parent” means you’re willing to listen and not just preach, someone your teen views as approachable.

ASHA also states that teens who talk with parents about sex and contraception are less likely to become pregnant and more likely to engage in safe sexual practices. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare for discussing contraceptives with your adolescent:

Convey the importance of contraceptives.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, average teenagers begin having sex around the age of 17, but they do not marry until they reach their mid-twenties. For nearly a decade, they face an increased risk of unwanted pregnancy and exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This age group accounts for:

  • approcimately 9.1 million new cases of STIs each year
  • nearly 21% of all new HIV diagnoses annually
  • about 20% of all unplanned pregnancies annually

The teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. is one of the highest among all developed countries. Couples who avoid contraception have an 85% chance of experiencing a pregnancy over the course of one year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Sharing facts with your teen can help him or her get a grasp on the consequences of irresponsible sexual activity. Simultaneously, reinforcing your family’s values on intimacy will encourage self-respect and responsible sexual behavior.

Explain how to obtain contraceptives and use them effectively.

Providing information about accessing contraceptives is a good idea, as well as sharing the pros and cons of viable options. Below are some examples:

  • Hormonal Methods: “The pill,” or hormonal oral contraceptives, are among the most commonly used forms of birth control, but users must be diligent to take them everyday. Oral contraceptives are used by nearly 20% of all women. Oral contraceptives must be obtained with a doctor’s prescription or through a publicly funded family planning institution.

    Some “morning after pill” methods are available over the counter. Unlike the pill, these pills are intended for emergency use and are not intended for ongoing regular use.

    Injections are given in the arm or buttocks every three months. A major benefit not having to keep up with a daily dose like oral contraceptives, but a downside is that special diet considerations, such as vitamin D supplementation, should be addressed.
  • Barrier Methods: Both male condoms and female condoms can be effective for preventing both unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs. Condoms are successful in about 82% of cases with proper use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Widely accessible and affordable, condoms are disposable and cause fewer side effects than oral contraceptives. These over-the-counter contraceptives are often provided at no cost by family planning clinics.
  • Intrauterine Methods: An intrauterine device, one of the most effective forms of contraceptives, may be user-friendly for a teen, because she wouldn’t have to remember to take “the pill” everyday and it can last for up to five years. However, IUDs must be medically inserted into the uterus and may be costly.
  • Abstinence: Refraining from sexual activity is the only 100% effective method of avoiding unwanted pregnancy and STI's.

Discuss contraceptive risks.

The teenage years are also a time when young people explore other risky behaviors such as smoking, but doing so while taking oral contraceptives can be life-threatening. It is crucial to emphasize the increased risk of developing pulmonary blood clots when smoking and oral contraceptive use occur together. Encouraging discussions over risks with your teen's doctor is a good idea.

Explore contraceptive effectiveness.

The withdrawal method, or coitus interruptus, is not recommended for teens who are less likely to be in tune with their sexual limits. This method requires self-discipline at the peak of sexual pleasure and even then it is not always effective.

Condoms, although effective, must be stored with care, away from heat and used before the expiration date. As breakage is always possible, backups should always be available.

The effectiveness of latex condoms decreases with the use of some spermicides and oil-based lubricants such as baby oil, petroleum jelly, and lotions. Only water-based lubricants are recommended with condom use, as oil-based lubricants and spermicides can weaken the sheath’s membrane, causing breakage or tearing.