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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Parent/Teen Communication

In this April 2000 edition:

Are You Ready to Talk with Your Kids?
Results of a Survey

According to a national survey, kids age 10-15 are ready to talk about today's tough issues before their parents are. The survey found that kids want to know more than the typical "birds-and-the-bees." For example, kids between the ages of 10-12 say they want to know:

  • How to protect against HIV/AIDS (50% want more information);

  • What to do if someone brings a gun to school (50% want more information);

  • How to handle pressure to have sex (44% want more information); and

  • How alcohol and drugs might affect decisions to have sex (43% want more information).

Some parents say they've already had these conversations with their kids! In fact, three out of four parents of 10-12 year olds say they've already talked with their pre-teen about drugs or alcohol (90%); violence (85%); drinking and driving (82%); AIDS (78%); and how pregnancy occurs (73%).

So, what's really going on? Perhaps one reason for the difference in perception may be that many parents of 10-12 year olds are still avoiding some of the more difficult discussions about sex, including:

  • How to handle peer pressure to have sex (46% of parents have not discussed);

  • How to know when you are ready to have sex (50% of parents have not discussed);

  • How alcohol and drugs might affect decisions to have sex (46% of parents have not discussed); and

  • How to prevent pregnancy and STDs (52% of parents have not discussed).

Experts recommend that parents talk early and often with their children about the "tough issues." According to Matt James, Senior V.P. at Kaiser Family Foundation, "The 'big talk' isn't what it used to be. It now needs to be 'supersized.' When parents today talk with their kids about tough issues, that means covering the basics, plus a whole lot more."

The survey was conducted as part of Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, a national campaign to support parents by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now. The campaign provides direct assistance to parents with free booklets and other resources that are available by calling 1-800-CHILD44, or online at

Advice from the Experts on How to Talk About Sex with Your Kids

So what's the advice from the parent/child communications experts? A few brief tips:

Explore your own attitudes. The more you examine the subject, the more comfortable you'll be discussing it.

  • Start early. Beginning as early as possible, use an honest, continuous flow of information.

  • Take the initiative. Look for opportunities or teachable moments to bring the subject up if a child hasn't started asking questions yet.

  • Talk about more than the "birds and the bees." Besides the biological facts, children really need to understand about the emotional aspects of a sexual relationship.

  • Give accurate, age-appropriate information. What you say should fit the age and developmental stage of your child.

  • Anticipate the next stage of development. To reduce children's anxiety, talk with them about their current developmental stage, and also what will happen during the next stage too.

  • Communicate your values. They may not always adopt your values, but your children will want to know your values about sex as they struggle with how they should behave.

  • Talk with your child of the opposite sex. Don't let gender differences make subjects like sex taboo. Consult with books, or close friends or relatives who may help you feel more comfortable.

  • Relax. You may not know all the answers, but what's more important is how you respond, not what you know.

Can We Talk?

The Can We Talk? program is a series of parent workshops grounded in the belief that parents want to communicate their values to their children; that students need factual information and well-developed decision-making skills; and that families, schools, and communities can work together to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, other sexually-transmitted diseases, substance use, and violence.

Can We Talk? is built on a simple philosophy:

  • Parents are already experts. With the right resources, they can enhance their skills in discussing healthy relationships and sexuality with their children.

  • When it comes to healthy relationships and sexuality, every family has different values. All are respected.

  • Family talks about self-esteem, sex and peer pressure should be ongoing.

The program consists of four one and one-half hour parent workshops on the following topics:

  1. Self-Esteem
  2. Puberty & Sexuality
  3. Mixed Messages
  4. Peer Pressure

The workshops are intended to provide parents of middle-school age youth with the skills and motivation to have ongoing talks with their children about difficult but important issues like sex, peer pressure and violence. In between workshops, the parents complete activities with their children from the "Can We Talk? Family Activity Book" that are designed to facilitate conversations about these sensitive topics.

Like the workshops themselves, the Can We Talk? materials are intended to stimulate discussion and skills-building. Some very basic factual information on puberty and sexuality is available in the "Family Activity Book," but it is up to each individual parent to decide what information and values to convey to their children.

Can We Talk? encourages parents and schools to partner in the sexuality education of young people. The workshop series creates a vehicle for parents and educators to come together and mobilize. These new family-school-community and workplace partnerships bring vital energy and new resources to support students as they navigate through late elementary and middle school. They also promote healthier families and communities.

How does Can We Talk? Change Behavior?

Under grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NEA Health Information Network is currently in the process of formally evaluating the progress of Can We Talk? It is assessing the program's effectiveness in modifying parents' behaviors and attitudes on family communication and creating sustainable state and local partnerships to support parent education.

While many of the evaluation activities are in progress and have yet to be completed, some preliminary data has become available. A first year evaluation of Can We Talk? implementation in four communities in the state of Washington yielded encouraging results pertaining to the effectiveness of the parent workshops. According to their pre- and post-tests:

  • Parents came to the first workshop believing it was important to talk often with their middle-school age children about the four topics, and they left feeling just as strongly.

  • After the workshop series, parents reported talking to their children more often about all the topics, including the more difficult ones like sexuality and HIV.

  • Parents indicated that they believed the workshop series would help them talk to their children about the topics and cited the "Family Activity Book" as a useful tool for doing this.

Also, a literature review of best practices in parent-child communication indicated that Can We Talk? is an innovative program to improve communication between parents and their children. In addition to being consistent with many of the key components of effective parent-child programming, Can We Talk? is based on theoretical frameworks that have underscored the relevance of parent-child communication.

According to social control theory, positive parent-child interactions function as a protective factor against maladaptive behaviors among children, while social learning theory describes the processes through which parental values and messages are adopted. Parental communication may facilitate the internalization of pro-social parental norms and values and improve family bonds, which, in turn, affect and guide children to behave in socially acceptable ways.

A review of literature on collaborative processes indicated that Can We Talk? can be the initial step of a collaborative that aims to have a comprehensive impact on the community.

For more information on the evaluation of Can We Talk?, please contact NEA HIN at 202/822-7570.

What do I Need to Implement Can We Talk? in My Community?

Setting up a Can We Talk? program takes organization and planning. Building community partnerships, finding sponsors, establishing funding and marketing the Training of Trainers institutes and parent workshops are critical elements of the program's success.

People approach the Can We Talk? program in a wide variety of ways. Some groups add Can We Talk? to their existing parent programs. Others run youth groups and want to start their first parent program. Some school districts have even made Can We Talk? their official parent program, and workplaces are using Can We Talk? as a lunchtime program for employees.

The first step is to order a set of the Can We Talk? materials. The complete kit costs $75 and includes the "Can We Talk? Planning and Training Manual," the "Can We Talk? Family Activity Book," the "Can We Talk? Video," and a free tote bag. The Planning and Training Manual contains step-by-step instructions on how to conduct a Can We Talk? workshop series in your community. The Family Activity Book contains the exercises that the parents will conduct with their children. The video uses whimsical cartoon segments to introduce each topic.

To order a copy of the Can We Talk? kit and to learn more about Can We Talk? and the steps for implementing this program in your community, visit the new Can We Talk? web site at or contact the NEA Health Information Network at 1201 16th St. NW, Suite 521, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 822-7570.

Note: Special thanks to Vicki Harris at NEA for contributing this summary.