Most parents might be surprised to learn that in a national survey teens reported parents had the greatest influence over their decisions about sex—more than friends, siblings, or the media.

Parenting teens is not always easy, and talking with them about sex-related topics can be difficult as well. Yet, talking with them about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and their prevention, can be a positive parenting practice. Most parents might be surprised to learn that in a national survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens reported parents had the greatest influence over their decisions about sex—more than friends, siblings, or the media.

With the school season fast approaching, there is no better time to learn the facts about sexually-transmitted diseases, and to discuss these with your teens. Especially as more than 54,000 new cases are reported each day, and young people age 15-24 have the highest rate of infection. Getting the correct information to teens is crucial as half of all sexually active young people in the United States will get an STD by the time they're 25—and most won't even know it.

There are many false assumptions about STDs, how they’re spread, treated, and prevented. Your teen can get incorrect messages about sex, relationships, the prevention of STDs, and pregnancy from a variety of sources such as friends, television, and social media. It’s also important not to assume your teen will absorb the health information they get at school, and what school districts allow to be taught can vary from state to state, and from county to county. So what can parents do to educate their teen about STDs? How can they protect their health and reduce the chances they will engage in behaviors that place them at risk?

1. Stay informed. Know where your teen is getting information, what health messages they are learning, and if they are accurate. Let them know that:

You can't tell someone has an STD just by looking at them. Almost all STDs that can be spread via unprotected vaginal sex can also be spread through unprotected oral and anal sex. Condom use is an easily accessible way to reduce the risk of contracting an STD or becoming pregnant. STD testing is a basic part of staying healthy. If something seems out of the ordinary, seek medical attention.

2. Identify unique opportunities to have a conversation with your teen: 

In the car. The car is a private space where your teen doesn’t have to look at you but can hear what you have to say. Immediately following a relevant TV show/movie. Characters on TV shows and movies model many behaviors, and certain storylines may provide the opportunity to reinforce positive behavior or discuss the consequences of risky behavior. Through text messaging, which may provide an easy, acceptable way to reinforce messages discussed in-person.

3. Talk with them specifically about how STD’s are spread, treated and prevented.

STD’s are spread through sexual intercourse, either anally, vaginally, or orally. Treatment for an STD depends on whether it’s viral, bacterial, or parasitic. Bacterial STDs like chlamydia, and gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotics. Viral STDs like herpes cannot be cured, but managed through medication. Parasitic STDs like Trichomoniasis and pubic lice can be treated with antibiotics, and shampoo respectively. STD’s are prevented by abstaining from sex. Vaccinations, monogamy, and condoms help reduce the risk of contracting one.

- Vaccinations help prevent Hepatitis B and the Human papillomavirus.

- Monogamy helps prevent STDs but only if both partners are not infected with one already.

- Male condoms reduce the risk of an STD by 85-98 percent. Female condoms by 79- 95 percent.

4. Provide opportunities for conversations between your teen and health care professionals. 

Take your teen to regular, preventive care appointments. Allow them time alone with the medical provider for confidential conversation. Encourage your teen to discuss issues that may be of concern, including STDs, and pregnancy with their provider. Be prepared to suggest that you step out of the room for a moment to allow for this special time, as not all health care providers will feel comfortable asking you to leave the room.

When you do create the opportunity for conversation with your teen, go beyond the consequences of risky sexual behaviors - teens often get this type message in health education classes or health marketing. As a parent, you have the opportunity to have discussions with your teen about deeper related topics. For instance, you can -

Talk about healthy, respectful relationships. Communicate your own expectations about relationships and sex. Focus on the benefits of protecting oneself from STDs, HIV, and pregnancy. Provide information about where they can speak with a provider and receive sexual health services, such as STD/HIV testing.

Remember, parents have the greatest influence over teens’ decisions about sex and if there’s little conversation, it follows there is less influence. So talk with your teen, find out what they know, and help guide them. Informed choices can result in life outcomes they really want.

For more information on STDs, or to schedule an appointment for testing, call the Ottawa County Health Department at 918-540-2481. The OCHD provides confidential STD testing, evaluation, education, treatment, and referral services. Or visit us at http://www.ok.gov/health/.

Sean Bridges is Health Educator for the Delaware and Ottawa County Health Departments.