How to talk to kids about birth control

"If you don’t talk to them, they will get that advice or misinformation from unreliable sources," a sex educator says.

Experts share how to handle the birth control conversation with teens. (Getty; illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo)
Experts share how to handle the birth control conversation with teens. (Getty; illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo) (Illustration by Victoria Ellis for yahoo ; photo: Getty images)

Tammy, a Kentucky mom of two, was thrilled when she found out that the FDA had recently approved the first nonprescription daily oral contraceptive, Opill. She has a 24-year-old daughter who became pregnant at 17 and gave birth to a son. The decision was made to give the baby boy up for adoption.

“I knew she was having sex, but looking back, I didn’t prepare her as much as I should have,” Tammy, who prefers that only her first name be used, told Yahoo Life. “Maybe if she knew she could go herself and easily buy birth control, like she buys Tylenol, she would have done that.”

Tammy also has a 16-year-old daughter who is already taking birth control pills. The younger daughter got an early education on birth control after observing what her older sister had gone through. Had the family not experienced a teenage pregnancy, Tammy is not sure that her younger daughter would have been as quick to start taking the pill.

She admits that she often put off having the birth control talk with her children, because it wasn’t a comfortable conversation to have. That’s a common practice among parents, according to Bridgett Khoury, a certified sex educator and founder of the School of Sexuality. Khoury told Yahoo Life that parents need to address the topic of contraception early.

“Birth control is the foundation of talking to your kids about sex,” Khoury said. “Sex is often a scary subject to engage in with children. There is this misconception that if you talk to your children about these things, then they’ll go out and do it, but the reality is: If your young person is going to engage in sexual activity, they are going to do it with or without you talking to them. If you don’t talk to them, they will get that advice or misinformation from unreliable sources.”

Khoury said that conversation has become even more important since Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer, which has resulted in bans on abortion in many states.

“It puts pressure on trusted adults to have those conversations more often, more openly and in a judgment-free way,” she said. “It’s really important to discuss what the laws are in your state and what could happen if you find yourself in those predicaments.”

When and how to start the conversation

Ideally the conversation won’t be a bombshell dropped at one time. Instead, Khoury recommends having ongoing, small conversations about sex and bodies starting at a young age.

“The goal is to not have one large and overwhelming conversation [but] rather normalize little conversations about sex, how babies are made and not made, how to stay safe, pleasure and so much more,” Khoury said.

As your children get older, the conversation should start to include all types of STDs and pregnancy prevention.

“For some people, this may take pushing through some discomfort. For others, you may find that you child is receptive, but it's a conversation that needs to be had, no matter what,” Khoury says. “You should make sure that you are talking about all forms of STDs and pregnancy prevention and treatment. Give your child all the information, not just bits and pieces of it.”

Khoury says that she started talking to her own children about birth control when they were in middle school. She kept it basic, going over the different kinds of contraception and how they work.

The conversation should be the same, regardless of the child’s gender. Condoms, birth control pills, IUDs and so on should be explained to both boys and girls, and it's important that they understand that it is their responsibility to practice safe sex rather than relying on a partner to take the necessary precautions.

Khoury also recommends comparing birth control to something that today’s youth can relate to: COVID.

“I compare it to wearing a mask,” she said. “Just as when we’re interacting and talking to people, there’s a risk of spreading diseases or infections, and the best way to prevent that is wearing a mask. The same way, when you’re intimate with other people and you’re putting bodies together, there’s risks that can happen and there are ways to keep you safer and reduce those risks.”

Starting the conversation may be the hardest part. Here are some suggestions Khoury gave:

  • “Many people begin to have intimate relationships around your age, I want to make sure you are equipped with the tools you need to stay safe and have control over your life."

  • "Sex becomes a pretty normal thing in high school, I want to make sure you are prepared before you decide to be physical with another person. Let's talk about how to stay safe."

  • "I see that this is an uncomfortable topic for you, and honestly, it is for me too, but it's important for us to have this conversation either way. How can I help you to feel more comfortable talking to me about these things?"

  • "Guess what? It's time to talk about pregnancy and STD prevention. Go grab a banana."

Khoury's sex education workshops include demonstrating how to use condoms by putting them on a banana. “About half of my students can't wait for banana condom day, and the other half are super-disgusted,” she said. “Assess how your child is feeling and either address the discomfort, or run with it.”

What if your kid is already using contraception?

Some parents who haven't yet broached the birth control conversation may be in the dark about their kids' sex lives — until they find a condom packet while doing the laundry or discover birth control pills in their daughter's bedroom. In this scenario, Khoury advises parents not to react impulsively in the moment.

“Don’t find the condom and go barging in your kid’s room yelling, 'What is this?'” she said. “Take a moment and process your own feelings around it before talking to your child.”

While it can be a shock to learn that your kid is sexually active, Khoury said it’s important to realize that, if you are finding birth control, it means your child is being responsible.

“It’s important to acknowledge that and use that to have an open, honest conversation with your kid,” she said.

Your daughter is ready to get on birth control — what next?

Dr. Scott Bovelsky, a gynecologist in Brevard County, Fla., said there’s a common misconception that an internal exam is required to obtain birth control. He suggests that parents tell their daughters that if no medical concerns are involved and they simply want a prescription for birth control, no exam is needed.

If a minor wants to obtain birth control without her parents’ permission, it will depend on what state she lives in. There are 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia, that explicitly allow minors to consent to contraceptive services.

A primary care physician or a gynecologist can provide birth control. However, if a youth is having issues with her menstrual cycle, it is recommended that she see a gynecologist. Bovelsky recommends that girls start seeing a gynecologist as soon as their menstrual cycle begins.

If a prescription is issued, it's important that the girl's doctor explains any health risks involved. Parents can show support by:

  • Making sure they understand any health risks or side effects

  • Encouraging them to flag any changes they're noticing in their body (mood swings, weight gain, etc.)

  • Helping them create a system that makes it easy to remember when it's time to take their pill and reorder more, so dosages aren't being skipped

  • Discussing, with insight from a medical provider, what other medications or supplements might make birth control less effective

It's worth noting that some girls seek out birth control for medical reasons (such as regulating periods, treating acne), rather than for contraceptive purposes. Even so, Bovelsky said he encounters parents who do not want their daughters on birth control for any reason, because they think that will send them a message that it is OK to be sexually active.

“There are noncontraceptive benefits to birth control that I tell parents about,” Bovelsky said, noting, for example, that it can provide relief for period pain for some people. The doctor said he has lost count of the number of times he has delivered a baby to a 14-year-old girl. To prevent that, he insists that parents need to talk to their children, male and female, starting at an early age, to combat any misinformation they're receiving at school and online.

“Talk to your kids, no matter what [sex] they are,” he said. “Talk to them early and frequently.”