10/15/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

It's Time to Talk Sex

October is Let's Talk Month, an annual effort to encourage parents to talk with their children and adolescents about sexuality-related topics.

While it can be scary to think about our teens having sex, the reality is most teens will before graduating from high school. In New York City about one in three youth in grades 9-12 are currently sexually active, according to the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That fact makes conversations between parents and teens critically important.

But talking isn't enough. According to a new survey conducted by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Family Circle magazine, and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at NYU -- parents and teens are talking about sex, but they aren't always communicating. The survey questioned more than 2,000 parents and teens asking detailed questions of parents and their teens, which gives a window into the experience from both perspective -- and a roadmap for how parents can have an ongoing dialogue about these issues with their adolescent children.

The survey found that 90 percent of parents said they talk to their teenagers about sex and sexuality, and 84 percent of teenagers said they talk with their parents about it. Everyone assumes these conversations don't happen even more regularly because parents are uncomfortable -- when, in fact, this new survey shows that teens are much more uncomfortable than their parents, (only 18 percent said they feel very comfortable talking with their parents compared to half of parents reporting that they feel very comfortable talking with their teens).

Knowing that teens are less comfortable can help parents approach these conversations differently. Parents need to be clear about what they're saying to their teens, and they need to have these conversations multiple times in order to get through and to build their teens' comfort level talking about sex and sexuality. While parents are talking about health with their teens, they aren't talking as much about the nuts and bolts of how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and how to say no to sex. Parents are also less likely to talk about sexual orientation than other topics.

As a leading provider of sex education, we spend a lot of time talking with parents about the critical role they play in helping their teenagers make informed decisions. We consistently remind parents that they are very influential in their teens' decision making about relationships and sex, and that starting an ongoing dialogue with their kids about sexual health makes a real difference in teens' behaviors and decisions. Research shows that teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and use condoms and other birth control methods when they do have sex.

At Planned Parenthood of New York City we have long worked to help parents in their role as their children's and teens primary sexuality educator through our Adult Role Models program. ARMs are local parents trained by PPNYC that conduct a workshop series to help parents and other caring adults communicate with their children about sexuality and strengthen parent-child relationships. Talking with teens, answering their questions about sex, and helping them make smart decisions about their relationships and behavior is vital to their development. Let's Talk Month is a great time to begin, or continue, the conversation.

If you are interested in learning more about PPNYC's Adult Role Models program, or would like to schedule a workshop in English or Spanish in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx, please call: (212) 274-7362.