Some topics never get discussed, at least not at the proper time, unless parents are will­ing to take the initiative. We are referring to certain aspects of sexual maturation that a child may not consider until he or she experiences them. These include menstruation, first ejaculation, and nocturnal (nighttime) orgasms. Experience with first menstrua­tion or ejaculation can come as quite a shock to the unprepared, as revealed in the fol­lowing two anecdotes:

I hadn’t even heard of menstruation when I first started bleeding. No one was home. I was so frightened I called an ambulance. (Authors’ files)

I remember the first time I ejaculated during masturbation. At first I couldn’t believe it when something shot out of my penis. The only thing I could figure is that I had whipped up my urine. However, considering earlier lectures from my mother about the evils of "playing with yourself," I was afraid that God was punishing me for my sinful behavior. (Authors’ files)

It is important that youngsters be aware of these physiological changes before they actually happen. Children’s natural curiosity about sex might cause them to discuss these topics with friends, who are usually not the most reliable sources of information. It is certainly better for parents to provide a more accurate description of these natural events.

Most young people prefer that their parents be the primary source of sex informa­tion and that their mothers and fathers share equally in this responsibility (Brewster, 2012; Kreinin et al., 2001; Somers & Surmann, 2004). A recent national survey revealed that about half of teen respondents had spoken with their parents about how to say no to sex or about methods of birth control. Fewer teens (males, 27%; females, 44%) had discussed both topics with their parents, and 38% of males and 24% of females had not spoken about either topic with their parents (Centers for Disease Control, 2011g). These data indicate that teenagers often have difficulty communicating with their par­ents about sex, for a number of reasons. These include embarrassment, concern that their parents will assume that they are sexually active, and thinking that their parents will not understand them (Lederman et al., 2008). Research indicates that parents also often feel uncomfortable and experience difficulty talking with their children about sex (Byers, 2011; Shtarkshall et al., 2007). This dual discomfort of both children and par­ents is unfortunate in that youth can benefit greatly from candid discussions with their parents about sex, as exemplified by the following anecdote provided by a young woman enrolled in a sexuality class:

First my mother, and later my father, talked to me at separate times about sex. I was enlightened by these conversations, and they created a closer bond and increased confidentiality and trust among all of us. I was very thankful that both of my parents talked with me about sex. I realized that they really cared about my well-being, and I appreciated their efforts to say to me what their parents did not say to them. (Authors’ files)

To the extent that parents do take an active role in the sex education of their chil­dren, mothers are far more likely than fathers to fulfill this function and girls are more likely than boys to be recipients of parent communication about sex (Hutchinson & Cederbaum, 2011; Tobey et al., 2011). Unfortunately, most American parents do not provide adequate sex education to their children (Kreinin et al., 2001; Meschke et al., 2000). Even where there is close and open communication between parents and chil­dren, sex often is not discussed. Several studies have shown that friends, and to a lesser extent the media, are the principal source of information about sex for young people in the United States (Sprecher et al., 2008). Thus the gap created by lack of information in the home is likely to be filled with incorrect information from peers and other sources (Newman, 2008; Whitaker & Miller, 2000). This can have serious consequences; for example, an adolescent may hear from friends that a girl will not get pregnant if she has intercourse only now and then. Peers may also encourage traditional gender-role behavior, and they often put pressure on each other to become sexually active. Thus the challenge for parents is whether they want to become actively involved in their children’s sex education, minimizing some of the pitfalls faced by children and adolescents who turn to their peers for sex (mis)information.

Positive parent-adolescent communication about sex has been linked to decreased risk of contracting STIs, more effective and consistent use of birth control, and decreased incidence of teenage pregnancies (Halpern-Felsher et al., 2004; Lehr et al., 2005; Stone & Ingham, 2002).

Sexuality During Childhood and adolescence