Parents, talk to your kids about STDs

July 27, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

PARENTS, PLEASE answer the following questions.

What does STD stand for? (Hint: It is not a hallucinogen or a fuel additive.)

Do you have to have sexual intercourse to get one? (Extra credit for every risky sexual activity you can name.)

Name three STDs -- sexually transmitted diseases. (Bonus points for any other than the Big Three: AIDS, gonorrhea and syphilis.)

What are the chances that your teen will contract an STD? Which one is your child most likely to get? What are the symptoms? (Move to the head of the class if you know that there probably won't be any symptoms.)

Is a condom guaranteed protection against an STD?

And one last question.

You didn't think this was a problem, did you?

Parents use the threat of STDs as the last, best argument for their teens not to become sexually active -- when the threat of pregnancy or the wrath of God no longer works.

But most of the time, they don't know what they are talking about.

In their own minds, if not in conversations with their children, parents put STDs in the same category as lightning strikes -- possible, but not probable.

"Teens are clueless, and parents are disbelieving," says Susan Bankowski, associate direc- tor of Baltimore's Campaign for Our Children, a teen pregnancy prevention initiative.

This was never more apparent than during her recent visit to a Baltimore middle school. Bankowski reports that one student thought STD was the same as LSD. Another couldn't explain what the phrase "sexually transmitted" meant -- and she'd been to class on the topic.

If teens don't even know what the abbreviation means, it is unlikely they will know that they can contract these diseases without having intercourse.

It is doubtful that teens know that a condom doesn't guarantee protection against incurable and painful genital warts, which can be transmitted by simple skin contact.

And teens almost certainly won't know when they have chlamydia. This most common STD can destroy a young girl's reproductive organs before a single symptom announces its presence.

Sex educators like Bankowski feel helpless against this vast misinformation and ignorance.

"There's only so much I can say in a poster," says Bankowski, gesturing in frustration. "Somebody has to be helping me out."

STDs are a required topic in school curricula, says Patti Flowers-Coulson, director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy. But sex education is often left until the end of the year, and time may run out before it can be covered thoroughly.

"STDs are supposed to be taught. But the truth is, we don't know if they are. There is no way to monitor it," says Flowers-Coulson.

"You can tell from talking to the kids," says Bankowski. "If it is being taught, they aren't getting it.

"It is left to the P.E. teacher or the school nurse or the science teacher," says Bankowski. "It is pushed on them, and some of them aren't even trained. They do it if they have the time."

And there is no point teaching children about the diseases if we don't teach them how they can get them, and there remains great discomfort -- on the part of parents and teachers alike -- in talking about various sexual acts.

"The information is useless if you don't explain the ways you can get it," says Flowers-Coulson. "And there is a real lack of understanding about how these things spread."

And spread they do. The rate of chlamydia is higher among 10- to 19-year-olds than it is among adults. And one in four kids will contract a sexually transmitted disease during their teen years.

"Parents don't want their kids exposed to this information at school," says Bankowski. "But they are not filling in the gaps at home. And the truth is, parents don't have the information.

"I can barely keep the details straight, and I've done a million of these talks."

One of the best places for a parent -- or a teen -- to learn about sexually transmitted diseases is on the Internet, at the Web site sponsored by the American Social Health Association, the leading authority on STD education. Go to www.ashastd.org, and send your teen to: www.iwannaknow.org.

(In addition, you can call the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy at 410-767-6265 for more information about STDs and advice on talking to your teens about sexuality.)

Make sure you understand -- make sure your kids understand -- that STDs are not about how often someone showers. This isn't about how "clean" they look or about how bright they are or what kind of neighborhood they live in or how well you know their parents.

Stop thinking about STDs as a character issue, and start thinking about STDs as a public health issue. This is about germs, viruses and insects, and germs don't care if your family goes to church every Sunday.

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