As an adolescent-medicine doctor, I’ve heard it all from parents: “I know they’re not having sex”; “They’ve promised to talk to me before they have sex”; “We talk about everything.” When I hear these confident statements from parents, I’m worried. I’m pretty sure that these families don’t talk about everything.

Why do I care so much? Because …

  • Half of all teens have had sex before they graduate high school.
  • Sexually active teens have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Teen pregnancy in the United States is higher than in any other developed country.
  • Research has shown that teen mothers often quit school, raise their children as a single parent, and live in poverty.
  • And their children are more likely to have health problems, to drop out of high school, and to become teen parents themselves.

This is why I care so much.

Given these grim facts, it’s important for teens to enter adolescence with the knowledge and power they require to emerge victoriously. Parents, you cannot rely solely on your child’s doctor or health teacher, and you certainly can’t rely on social media and what they read on the internet. You need to champion this mission.

To begin, check your parenting style. What kind of parent are you?

Authoritarian (strict): Controlling and demanding; sets rigid rules; doesn’t explain the reasons for rules (“Because I said so”); expects 100% obedience; gives punishments for not meeting expectations. Children of authoritarian parents may not develop the ability to make decisions independently.

Permissive: Not demanding; sets few rules; acts more like a friend than a parent. Children of permissive parents often grow up feeling that their parents don’t care.

Authoritative (balanced): Focuses more on guiding than controlling behavior; sets firm rules; explain the reasons for rules; allows for some “give and take”; forgives and teaches more often than punishing. Children of authoritative parents will likely grow up to become assertive, responsible, independent and cooperative.

Among the various parenting styles, authoritative is proven to be the most effective. Odds are that if your parenting style is authoritative you and your teenager will begin to talk about everything.

Beginning at age 8 or 9, let the talk begin. You can’t go wrong with discussing the changes of puberty before they happen. When they begin puberty and their bodies are changing, it’s time to dive into the deep end. If you want your kids to wait to have sex, you need to tell them so, and tell them why. Peer pressure is very powerful, but in reality teens say that parents have even more influence than peers on their decisions about sex, love and relationships. As a matter of fact, almost 9 in 10 teens said that it would be much easier to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.

My advice: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but try these: “I’d really like you to wait to have sex until you’re older, because if you get pregnant (or get somebody pregnant), it will be harder for you to reach your future goals.” You can also try this: “I’d really like you to wait to have sex until you’re older, but if you decide not to wait, please be safe and use condoms and a reliable form of birth control (like a hormonal intrauterine device).”

Rima Himelstein is a pediatrician and adolescent-medicine specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.