Preventing Teen Pregnancy Starts in Preschool

Teen pregnancy rates have been declining for several decades, yet more than three in 10 teen girls will become pregnant at least once by age 20. Rates are even higher in Oklahoma, which is now ranked 4th in the nation for highest teen birth rates. Scientific studies consistently show that children who have had their questions about sex and relationships answered by a reliable adult start sexual activity later, use contraception more reliably and are less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens say that their parents most influence their decisions about dating and relationships. Unfortunately, a recent study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence reported that more than half of young adults said that they had few or no conversations with their parents about sex or birth control.

There are many reasons parents may be uncomfortable talking with their children about sex and birth control. Often, parents have a difficult time knowing where to begin, or how much information to provide and when to provide it. They may have been raised in a family where sex was not talked about.

Parents can approach informing their children about relationships, sex and birth control in much the same way that they communicate about other issues such as health. Instead of “the talk,” parents are encouraged to approach sex education as a series of on-going, developmentally appropriate conversations.

Age-appropriate guidelines to help parents approach sex education in this way have been published in the Journal of Family Health Care:

Ages 3-5:

At this age, children are curious about the differences they notice in people’s bodies. Children may ask questions about why boys and girls have different parts, or where babies come from. Very basic answers are better than complex ones; short answers are usually best. For example, parents could answer those questions by saying that boys and girls are made differently or that babies are made when moms and dads hug each other in a special way.

Ages 5-7:

Children at this age ask many “why” questions. Parents are encouraged to answer their “why” questions without showing embarrassment and without being too judgmental; children this age remember lessons and emotional attitudes that will stay with them into adulthood.

Ages 7-9:

Although most children go through puberty later, some children may start as early as eight years old. Starting periods or having wet dreams can be frightening to children who aren’t prepared. During this age, children are interested in right and wrong and will want to know how this applies to sex and love. This is also a good time to practice role-playing about how to say “No” to things they feel uncomfortable about or do not want to do. If children overhear or see something and ask questions about it, parents can ask what the children think about it and fill in gaps or correct misunderstandings as needed.

Ages 9-11:

Pubertal development typically starts during this age, particularly among girls. Several topics that can be discussed as children approach and go through puberty, including: how the body will change; how babies are conceived and born; menstruation, recognizing that both boys and girls benefit from this information; sexual intercourse; contraception; preventing STDs; same-sex relationships; peer pressure; how to say “No” to unwanted sex; and family and personal values and guidelines.

Pre-teens and early teenagers:

Tailoring information to your child’s developmental level is essential given that emotional and physical development varies widely. Some teens feel comfortable about asking questions, and others may become more secretive. Parents might need to look for opportunities to engage their children in conversation about relationships or sex. Having reference material available in the home that the teens can access privately might be helpful.

This Evidence-Based Parenting article was supported by funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation awarded to the Oklahoma State University Center for Family Resilience.  Karina M. Shreffler is an associate professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University. She can be reached at or 918-594-8389.

For more resources, parents are encouraged to visit the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy website or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Parent and Guardian Resources website.

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