Although I’m not a parent, I understand the awkwardness of discussing sex with children, because I was recently a child whose mother found a used pregnancy test in my bathroom (by recent, I mean, just shy of a decade ago). I know that despite your best intentions, sex is a fraught subject, even in the most sex positive, open households. But please. I implore you. Speak to your children about and provide access to birth control even if the idea of it makes you want to cringe. Even if you think they aren’t having sex. Even if you think they shouldn’t be having sex. There is absolutely no valid reason to deny your teens access to birth control.
We have a serious teen pregnancy problem in this country, and it’s a problem that has a solution. I didn’t realize the severity of the problem, so let me share some facts with you. 3 in 10 American teenage girls will get pregnant at least once before reaching age 20. The facts get more dismal when you start to look at the effects of unwanted teen pregnancies–more than 50% of teen mothers never graduate from high school, and parenthood is the leading reason that teen girls leave high school. Less than 2% of teen moms obtain a college degree by their 30th birthday. And finally, a teen who is sexually active without contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year. Talk to you children about birth control.
I don’t by any stretch mean to disparage teen mothers, who of course are more than capable of beating these odds and who parent beautifully despite the adversity. But the US has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy out of all industrialized nations, and most teen pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted. They are preventable. And in the face of dismal sex ed in our schools, this one falls to you, parents.
Sure, there are a lot of reasons to avoid this conversation, and the most common one I’ve heard (from my own parents and anecdotally) is that the parents in question thought that their children weren’t having sex. Let’s get one thing straight about your kids and their sex lives: you may think you know. You may think you have an open relationship with your children–one that fosters healthy communication and one in which your children would feel comfortable talking to you about sex (and if so, good job!). You might think that your child really only spends time at home and at school anyways, and if he or she is having sex in your house then you’d certainly know about it. But let’s be honest. Teenagers will always find a way to have sex. You don’t even want to know the places I practiced my fumbling in high school. And so having confirmation about that you teen is sexually active isn’t the point–it’s actually irrelevant. Explain contraceptives to your teen and offer to provide it anyway.
Then there’s the issue of parents who know or suspect that their teens are sexually active but withhold birth control for any number of mangled reasons. Perhaps you believe your teenager shouldn’t be having sex, and so your disapproval colors your judgement. I won’t bother to tell you otherwise, because I am not you and I don’t know what your family’s thoughts on sex are. But giving your children access to birth control is not tacit approval of their sexual choices–it’s not a blanket endorsement of their behavior. You are more than welcome to sit them down and make your case, but give him or her access to birth control anyway. If he or she goes against your wishes and has sex, at the very least you can ensure that your teenager is safe. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my teen having safe sex that I don’t approve of than sneaking around without protection, hoping I don’t find out.
Perhaps you might not want to admit that there are things going on in your children’s lives that you don’t know about. You might have thought you raised your kid to be open with you. If you attempted to raise your child to feel comfortable enough to come to you but they haven’t, you didn’t do anything wrong. We forget that children don’t just exist in the framework of how they relate to you–your child might feel perfectly comfortable having the conversation but would choose not to. Your children have the right to be private people, and so your indignance over your teen choosing not to share that aspect of his or her life with you shouldn’t affect your decision to provide you teen with critical information. Fill their nightstand with condoms.
And for some parents, it’s simply awkward. Maybe, despite your best intentions, you were raised in some sort of oppressive household in which sex was an awful, dirty thing not to be mentioned in polite society. The idea of having sex before marriage might have been foreign or simply ignored when you grew up, and so the idea of having a possibly graphic conversation with your teens might seem uncomfortable. This is where your level of discomfort doesn't matter. It’s time to be a parent. Print out information on IUDs.
So how does one broach this topic? If your kid asks for birth control, take him or her to the doctor. Do you know how hard it is to ask? Speaking from the point of view of a once teenage girl who asked to be taken to the gynecologist, it is unbelievably difficult, regardless of your relationship. In fact, you should be proud that your teen is making such responsible decisions. Your teen just made an exceptionally mature decision when it would be so easy not to, and demonstrated agency and empowerment that should bring you nothing but pride. For the love of god, when a kid asks for birth control, give it to him or her without question.
Otherwise, if you have slightest idea that your teen might be sexually active or if you are the parent to a teenager, simply sit him or her down one day (without a ton of fanfare) and offer up some information. In my ideal world, all parents say “you don’t have to tell me anything, but if at any point you want birth control, I’ll take you to the doctor/CVS with no questions asked.” It’s no pressure, doesn’t force your kid to disclose information that he or she might want to keep private, and provides access and information. It may be uncomfortable to think about, but your teens are probably having sex. It’s time to move past your disapproval, indignance, denial, or discomfort and talk to him or her about birth control.