Part of being a parent is sharing stories with your child to help them learn. Tales about not talking to strangers or being kind to a classmate have teaching points that cover everything from friendship and hardship to safety and health. With such a great teaching tool as the story, it's hard to believe so many parents have trouble talking to their kids about STDs. But with 9.5 million adolescents and young adults getting diagnosed with STDs per year, it's clear there's a gap in the storytelling.
It's not particularly hard to understand why. While most parents are happy to share stories about victories or conflicts they encountered as a child, many believe their sex life is private, and not storytelling material. Even though the CDC recommends getting tested for STDs as early as age 15, many parents can barely get through the basics of how to be a responsible sexual individual by the time their child hits adolescence. The trouble is, without a good story, it's easy for young people to forget sex is more than a physical activity: sex is also about feelings, communication and the health of both individuals.
I don't believe in scare education, so when my child is of age, I will tell her this personal story about STDs. Long ago, I had a boyfriend who was everything I wanted: kind, handsome, a musician of great accomplishment and, most of all, interested in me. He was also a former user of an illegal IV drug, a terrifying truth I found out on the fourth date. I knew there was a remote chance he was infected with HIV, and that in order to feel safe and healthy, I would have to address it.
The trouble was, I had started to like him. Within minutes of the Indian food arriving on our first date, I wanted to be in a relationship with him. On the second date, we held hands at a daytime music festival. On the third date we kissed at a museum, and on the fourth date he told me stories about his musician friends and the casual relationship he had with getting high. We still hadn't gotten involved physically, and so I did the terribly uncomfortable thing recommended by all health educators: I asked him to get an AIDS test.
He looked more surprised than offended. "I don't have AIDS," he said.
"How do you know?" I asked. It was a very awkward moment that I never regretted. I wanted to trust his word. But I trusted my gut more.
Millions of individuals every year don't end up asking their partners, or worse, did ask but were lied to. "I would never want someone to find out the hard way," says a member of PositiveSingles.com, the largest STD community online. "I'm always honest now." The best way to know if someone is telling the truth? Offer to get tested with them.
My love interest did get tested -- and he was clean. We spent many years in a safe, loving, substance-free relationship. But the relationship easily could have fizzled at that tender moment. I could have scared him away with my request that he get AIDS tested. Or worse, he could have tested positive and made my decision harder. But I was ready to make the hard decision, because I loved my safety and my health more than I loved the idea of having a boyfriend.
You may feel this story is wildly inappropriate, and I get why. Parents don't want to model any type of sex for their adolescents, or relationships with people who are less than perfect. But if sex and the related complications aren't part of how your children see you, they will likely feel the taboo of sex instead of the reality. They may act in confusion, and choose not to share their issue with you.
We all know STDs ruin people's lives, but if an accident does happen, your teen doesn't have to choose between having an infection and being loved. They do need to learn how to have an uncomfortable conversation, however. And who better to learn from than you?
It's important to warn your kids about STDs and to let them know if they get one, there are very important steps to take to protect their health and the health of their partner. If you have trouble telling a personal story, then I invite you to tell mine. Just tell them something, so they don't become a statistic. Doing so is part of being a loving parent.