Teens and sex: Protecting your teen’s sexual health

Teens and sex can be a risky combination. Find out how to talk to your teen about abstinence and contraception.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Few parents want to think that their teens are having sex. But research shows that nearly 40% of teens are sexually active by high school. Help your teen build the skills to protect against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by talking about safe sex and birth control early and often.

Talk about safe sex and healthy relationships even if your teen identifies as gender-fluid or LGBTQ. Teens of any gender identity or sexual orientation may still engage in sexual contact. So – there is still risk of unplanned pregnancy and STIs.

Tips for talking to your teen

How you talk to your teen — and how often — makes a big difference in helping your teen make healthy choices when it comes to sex. Keep in mind, your teen’s curiosity about sex is a natural and healthy part of development. You can help your teen build healthy skills as they grow into adulthood.

  • Talk early and often — A one-time “birds and the bees” talk isn’t enough. Start talking to your teen about safe sex during the pre-teen years. Keep up the talk through early adulthood. Change the talk to your teen’s age and growth.
  • Avoid judgement and lectures — Studies find that punishing language and attitudes can encourage rebellious, risk-taking behavior.
  • Focus on well-being — The teen years are known as a time of risk-taking. But they’re also the time when healthy self-care behaviors start. Besides talking about risks, model and express the value of healthy relationships and choices.

Promoting abstinence

It’s never too late to talk about abstinence with your teen. When sex happens early, the chance of pregnancy and repeated STIs is high.

Ask your teen to think about personal values and hopes for the future. And think about how sex might affect those plans. Tell your teen that:

  • Teens and sex can be a risky combination
  • There are many nonsexual ways they can share romantic feelings with someone
  • The only sure way to prevent teen pregnancy and STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes and HIV, is to abstain from sex — oral, vaginal and anal

Promote abstinence. But it should be part of a larger discussion on sexual health and protection. Research has found that abstinence-only education doesn’t lower rates of teen pregnancy or STIs. When abstinence alone is the focus, teens often turn to the media or friends for sex-related values and information.

Discussing birth control choices

Understanding birth control methods is an important life skill for everyone. Whether your teen decides to have sex or to wait, make sure your teen knows how to prevent pregnancy and protect against STIs.


Stress the importance of always using condoms during sex, even if your teen uses a second form of contraception.

  • Regular and correct use of condoms is the most effective way for sexually active teens to protect themselves from STIs.
  • Condoms help prevent pregnancy.

Prescription birth control

Many forms of prescription birth control can help prevent teen pregnancy. Long-acting reversible contraceptive methods (LARCs) are the most effective at preventing pregnancy as reported by the World Health Organization, CDC and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. These include intrauterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive implants. LARCs are safe for teens and need little thought after placement.

Prescription birth control choices that help prevent teen pregnancy include:

  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs) (Mirena, Skyla, Paragard)
  • A contraceptive implant (Nexplanon)
  • Combination birth control pills
  • The contraceptive patch (Xulane)
  • The vaginal ring (NuvaRing)
  • The contraceptive injection (Depo-Provera)

Your teen will need to see a health care provider to get a prescription for these types of contraceptives. Before scheduling the appointment, ask if your teen would be more comfortable with a provider of a certain gender.

Tell your teen that the provider may:

  • Review medical history
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of different types of birth control

A pelvic exam is necessary if your teen chooses an IUD.

Help your teen understand that prescription birth control isn’t a replacement for condoms. Prescription birth control helps prevent pregnancy. But it doesn’t protect against STIs.

Emergency birth control

Tell your teen that it’s important to decide about birth control before having sex. But emergency contraception — such as the morning-after pill levonorgestrel (Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, Take Action), ulipristal (ella) or IUDs — can help prevent pregnancy if your teen doesn’t plan ahead or birth control fails.

  • Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose and Take Action can be bought over the counter without a prescription.
  • Ella can only be prescribed by your health care provider.
  • IUDs are available with a prescription and must be placed by a health care provider.

Emergency birth control must be started as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. The sooner pills are taken, the more likely they are to work. But — both the pills and IUD may be taken or placed up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected intercourse.

Natural family planning

If you’re concerned about the side effects of prescription birth control, or if using birth control goes against your family values, talk to your teen about natural family planning. This means not having sex during a woman’s most fertile days. But — knowing signs of fertility is hard. Irregular menstrual cycles, breastfeeding and more can make these days hard to predict.

Keep in mind:

  • Natural family planning methods aren’t as effective as prescription birth control and don’t protect against STIs.
  • Effective use of natural family planning methods needs mindfulness and planning. Teen sex is often unplanned.
  • Teen girls’ menstrual cycles can be irregular. This makes it hard to know signs of fertility.
  • Natural family planning needs a supportive partner.

Don’t be afraid that talking to your teen about birth control will encourage sex. Your teen is likely curious about sex and contraception, even if you don’t bring up the topic. By being open and honest, you can help your teen make informed decisions and act more responsibly when sex happens — whether it’s now or years in the future.

If you’re having trouble talking to your teen about safe sex, ask a therapist, teacher or your teen’s health care provider for help. You can get many resources on how to talk to your teen and accurately answer questions about sexual health and birth control.

Encouraging responsible behavior

Teens may lack the maturity to use some types of birth control effectively. If your teen is thinking about using prescription birth control, tell your teen the following to encourage the best decision:

  • Frequency of use and convenience. For instance, combination birth control pills must be taken at the same time every day. NuvaRing, in contrast, is worn for three weeks at a time but still must be used according to directions.
  • Tracking health care appointments and birth control use. Tell your teen the importance of keeping track of health care appointments. Talk about how taking birth control doses can become part of a daily routine — such as before going to bed or when brushing teeth.
  • Missed doses. Make sure your teen understands what to do if a dose is missed or if there’s a chance of pregnancy.

If your teen is considering becoming sexually active, give practical tips — such as keeping condoms in a wallet or purse. Tell your teen that use of alcohol and other drugs may affect judgment and increase the risk of getting a STI.

The bottom line

Talking about sex and contraception with your teen isn’t easy. But your guidance can encourage informed choices to protect your teen’s sexual health.


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