Research shows the average age for young people in the United States to have sex for the first time is around 17 years old. That may be a tough pill to swallow for many parents, but there’s no reason to shy away from talking to your teen about their options. And that includes taking birth control pills, which about 35 percent of sexually active teens aged 15–19 are using. It's the most common contraceptive among teens after condoms.
Birth control may be a sensitive subject, but it doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable. Experts weigh in on how to have a positive chat with your teen about the pill to help them navigate this new stage in their life.
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When should you talk about birth control with your teen?
It’s never too early to start talking to your child about practicing safe sex and the birth control pill, says Nita Landry, M.D., an OB-GYN who practices across the country and co-hosts “The Doctors.”
She suggests parents strike up the conversation before their child starts having sex and certainly between 13 and 15, the time the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends teen girls first see a gynecologist.
"By opening up the conversation and making your child feel as if they can ask questions as necessary, you are opening the door for them to approach you if and when they may need to take the next steps for protection," says Dr. Landry.
How should you talk about birth control?
Every family dynamic is different as are personal goals and values, but when you do approach your teen about birth control, or when they approach you, experts say it’s important to appear relaxed and avoid overreacting. You want them to feel comfortable coming to you with any additional questions.
“Be supportive and open with your child,” says Ree Langham, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist based in Tennessee. And always opt for honesty. A good approach is asking your child if other kids in the grade are having sex and how she feels about that, advises Dr. Langham.
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But don’t force the conversation if your teen doesn’t seem comfortable and don’t insinuate she's having sex and needs to speak with you about it. This will probably only cause her to close up and feel attacked.
When is it OK for your teen to start birth control?
"There isn't an age that is too young physiologically once your teen has started her menstrual period,” says Dr. Landry. But in order to be effective, she adds, contraception needs to be used as instructed. If your teen will have a hard time remembering to take the birth control, you can discuss long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) method, she adds.
LARC methods, which include an intrauterine device or a contraceptive implant, “have higher efficacy, higher continuation rates, and higher satisfaction rates compared with short-acting contraceptives among adolescents who choose to use them,” according to ACOG.
What are reasons your teen can use birth control?
Pregnancy prevention isn’t the only reason a teen will start using the pill. Oral contraceptives can also help manage menstrual complications like intense cramps, heavy bleeding, and an inconsistent cycle, as well as help with acne and premenstrual syndrome (PMS), says Dr. Landry.
There are also a few other benefits to note if your child decides to use the pill: Long-term use of oral contraceptives have been found to decrease risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.
What are the side effects of birth control?
Like any medication, birth control can have side effects. Teens can experience cramping, nausea, headaches, breast tenderness, and mood changes, says Dr. Landry. To avoid this, doctors tend to put teens on low dose estrogen oral contraceptives.
In the case your teen does notice side effects, it can be easily corrected. "If she can recognize side effects when they first occur, her doctor can quickly replace birth control with another one that better fits her biological, physical, and sexual needs," says Dr. Langham.