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Teens, Sex and Why Talking Matters

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Having been a mom for 25 years, one thing I've learned is that parenting is as much a practice of repetition as it is of love. If we want to help our kids to make healthy decisions, we have to be clear about our values and about the information we give them on how to stay safe. Nowhere is this truer than those seemingly awkward conversations with teens about sex -- a finding highlighted in a groundbreaking new survey.

As part of October's Let's Talk Month, a national awareness-raising campaign that encourages parents to talk with their kids about sex and sexuality, Planned Parenthood partnered with Family Circle magazine and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at NYU to survey more than 2,000 parents and teens on how they're talking about sex. We found that parents tend to think they're talking with their teens about sex a lot more frequently than teens do -- and that parents and teens are missing opportunities to discuss safe sex.

The good news is that teens are interested in learning -- from their parents -- about preventing unintended pregnancy and using birth control. And what we also know from study after study is that teens who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex and to use condoms and birth control when they do have sex.

But when young people don't get this information from their parents, they pay a big toll. Fifteen- to 29-year-olds account for 39 percent of all new HIV infections, and 15- to 24-year-olds account for nearly half of all new sexually transmitted infections. And each year, nearly 750,000 teenagers will become pregnant -- the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country. We can help prevent young people from being part of these statistics -- if we have ongoing conversations with our teens.

But these conversations can't just be about preventing pregnancy and disease. Talking about broader issues like relationships and sexual orientation -- which our survey shows parents and teens aren't doing nearly enough -- is also crucial. This is where parents can play a really important role in letting their young adults know that these are safe topics to discuss. The data is clear on this, too -- teens who feel accepted by their parents and know they have a safe place to talk about their relationships are much more likely to be in loving, healthy partnerships. These initial conversations build a teen's foundations for how they will approach every future relationship.

As the country's leading provider of sex education, Planned Parenthood works every day to help parents and teens have these talks. We have professionals at our health centers across the nation who specialize in advising on these conversations. Our doors are always open and plannedparenthood.org is always accessible.

In fact, our website has tips on how to communicate with your teens -- from making "the sex talk" a lifelong conversation to looking for teachable moments to engage your teen. Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country are holding workshops on the subject this month and beyond. So, let's start talking, because the cost of not doing so is too high a price for our teens to pay.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.