The Best Reasons to Discuss HIV With Your Teen Now

Having "the talk" with your teen can be difficult in the best of times. It can evoke feelings of discomfort in adults who are unaccustomed to discussing sex with others, much less their own kids. It may even challenge moral or religious beliefs, suggesting to some a tacit approval of teen sex.

Whatever your beliefs or concerns, one fact remains: avoiding an open and non-judgmental discussion about sex—or assuming your child’s school will take care of it—may be a mistake.

The consequences are no longer confined to unintended pregnancies and treatable sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Today, over 7,500 people between the ages of 13 and 24 are newly diagnosed with HIV in the United States each year. Condomless sex is the main cause of infection.

Teenage couple kissing on sofa
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By knowing the facts and preparing yourself for ongoing talks, you can dispel common misconceptions and provide your teen with the tools to avoid HIV infection.

This article outlines five major reasons why you need to discuss HIV with your teen today.

Many Infections Occur During the Teen Years

While the rate of new HIV infections is highest among adults ages 25 to 34, a great many infections occur while people are still in their teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over one of every five new HIV infections are in people between the ages of 13 and 24.

While it may seem fair to assume that the majority of these occurred in young adults, research from John Hopkins University suggests this may not be the case.

According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014, roughly 45% of people with HIV under the age of 25 sought a diagnosis when the disease was already advanced (as measured by a CD4 count of under 350).

Compared to a "normal" CD4 count of between 500 to 1,500, a CD4 count under 350 means that the immune system has been significantly damaged after years of infection.

Many people who were diagnosed with HIV between the ages of 20 and 24 were infected when they were still in their teens. The CDC estimates that 60% of people under 25 with HIV have no idea that they've been infected.

Recap

One of every five new HIV diagnoses in the United States is in people between the ages of 13 and 24. Studies suggest that 45% of these infections occurred years before the diagnosis was made.

Many Teens Think They Are Not at Risk

According to a survey conducted by the CDC, around 38% of students reported having had sex during their high school years. Nine percent reported having four or more sexual partners. Statistics like these account for why half of the 26 million STD infections in the United States each year are in people 15 to 24.

One of the main reasons for the high rate of infections is the low rate of consistent condom use. Of the students included in the survey, 46% said they didn't use a condom the last time they had sex.

The behavior is similar among college students. Some studies suggested that anywhere from 30% to 60% of college students do not use condoms consistently.

While the general knowledge about HIV among students has improved greatly in recent years, condom use still lags behind. This is due in large part to the low perceived risk of infection among many high school and college-aged students.

A 2017 study published in Sexuality & Culture reported that among students surveyed at one Midwest college, the majority (81.5%) did not believe themselves to be at risk of HIV—despite the fact that one of every 500 college students in the United States has HIV.

These results were mirrored in another study conducted in South Carolina in 2021. According to the researchers, over 80% of college students surveyed did not perceive themselves to be at risk of HIV. This translated to low rates of condom use as well as low rates of HIV testing (8%).

Recap

Studies suggest that only around half of high school and college students use condoms consistently. Part of the reason is that most do not believe themselves at risk of HIV.

Teens Are Unlikely to Discuss HIV With Each Other

Even if teens are concerned about HIV, research suggests that they won't talk about it with their peers.

One of the largest HIV surveys conducted among high school students, called the Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Study, found that discussions about HIV were surprisingly uncommon among 7th- to 11th-grade students.

Of the 3,627 11th-graders surveyed, 47% of males and 43% of females expressed concerns about HIV. Despite this, only 6% of males and 9% of females ever discussed HIV with their friends.

One of the reasons for this was the high rate of negative attitudes about HIV among teens. Among 7th graders in particular, 22% of males and 17% of females stated that they would not be friends with someone with HIV. Of the same group, 16% of males and 10% of females felt that people with HIV were to blame due to "promiscuous" behaviors.

While these attitudes tended to soften as students got older, high rates of HIV stigma continued to discourage discussion, even among those most concerned about the disease.

Recap

Although HIV is of concern to many sexually active high school students, studies suggest that they are unlikely to talk about it with each other.

Parent-Teen Talks Do Work

Parental discussions about condoms, STDs, and HIV can have a positive influence on a teen's sexual behavior.

According to a study published in the journal AIDS Behavior, teens who discuss condoms with their parents are three times more likely to use condoms—and 20 times more likely to use condoms consistently—compared to teens who had no parental interaction.

Similarly, a 2017 review of studies from the University of North Carolina reported that teens who openly discussed sex, STDs, and HIV with their parents were less likely to engage in condomless sex and more likely to delay sex until a later age.

While having "the talk" with your teen is important, it should not be considered a one-off event. Regular, positive reinforcement can help your teen better adhere to the tools of HIV prevention.

Recap

Research has shown that when parents talk to teens about sex, teens are more likely to use condoms consistently. These talks may also encourage teens to delay sex until they get older.

Parental Discomfort Scares Teens Away

Talking about sex can be tough enough given society’s general discomfort with sexuality. When HIV is involved, the discussion can become far more complex given that the risks are often linked to taboo subjects.

Consider the following:

  • 87% of HIV infections among young males are a result of male-to-male sexual contact.
  • 21% of students used alcohol or drugs before their most recent sexual encounter.
  • 13% of HIV infections among young females are the result of injecting drug use.

Addressing issues like these can be extremely difficult, but the consequences of not addressing them can be even greater.

Research suggests that parents who are not knowledgeable about sex, who are not specific about condoms and STD prevention, or who are not factual about puberty and sexual topics are less likely to influence a child's sexual behavior.

To overcome these issues, experts recommend starting to talk about sex sooner. When kids are younger, parents are less likely to be squeamish and children are more likely to be receptive.

According to a review of studies published in the Journal of Human Behavior and Social Environment, discussions about sex are most effective during early adolescence (more or less around the age of 13).

Delaying until your teen is older can increase rather than decrease at-risk behaviors. Research suggests that teens may be less receptive if they think their parents are only acting on suspicions that their kid is having sex.

Recap

Research suggests that the ideal time to start talking about sex and HIV is when your child is around the age of 13. Waiting until your teen is older may be less effective.

Summary

Talking with your teen about HIV can be uncomfortable. But avoiding a discussion places your child at an increased risk of condomless sex, multiple partners, and other high-risk behaviors. This is especially true given that the majority of teens do not consider themselves to be at risk of HIV.

Studies show that parental discussions increase the likelihood of consistent condom use in teens and may even encourage them to delay sex under a later age.

Discussions about sex are generally most effective during early adolescence. Delaying can have a negative effect if your teen. Being knowledgeable, accurate, and specific about sex and HIV prevention is crucial to effective parent-teen communications.

A Word From Verywell

Not every parent-teen relationship is the same, and not every parent can be expected to be 100% perfect when it comes to talking about HIV and sex.

If you as a parent feel overwhelmed or are faced with issues that are beyond your comprehension, seek the support of an HIV specialist or qualified HIV counselor. They can either help prepare you for your discussions or be there to facilitate them.

With that said, don't palm off the responsibility on someone else. Even if it makes you uncomfortable, being there may help open future conversations between you and your teen if there are any questions about sex, STDs, or HIV.

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14 Sources
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