Encouraging Youth to Choose Sexual Abstinence Until Marriage

Parents are the natural educators of their children. As pediatricians, we can equip parents and provide guidance as they seek to promote the sexual and emotional health of their adolescents.


Media saturate youth culture with sexual images, sounds, and feelings, promoting early sexualization and encouraging adolescents to make bad choices about sex. Among high school students surveyed in 2013 in the United States, 46.8% stated they had experienced sexual intercourse at least once.(1) In 1991, 54.1% of teens had sexual experience.(2)  It is encouraging that more adolescents today are choosing abstinence.

Most parents consider premarital sex unacceptable (based on a survey of American parents and adolescents released in August 2010 by the Department of Health and Human Services).



  • As advocates for the health and well-being of young people, pediatricians and other health professionals should promote sexual abstinence for unmarried adolescents.
  • Pediatricians can help educate parents by explaining to them that they have the ability to influence their adolescents to abstain from sexual activity.


Adolescent sexual activity has many risks, such as unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), infertility from STIs, mental health struggles (low self-esteem, guilt, depression, anxiety, suicide, etc.). It decreases the likelihood that a young person will finish college. When teens who have been sexually active become adults, they are less likely to marry and more likely to have a child out of wedlock. If they do marry, they are more likely to have future difficulty bonding with and trusting a marital partner and are more likely to divorce.

Consistent parental involvement, supervision, and boundary setting (especially shielding teens, to the degree possible, from sexually explicit media) encourage teens to choose abstinence. Research shows that when teens are raised with reasonable rules and expectations for behavior and monitoring of what they do (such as the TV shows they watch, the music they buy, and the Internet content they access), their likelihood of engaging in high-risk activities, such as premarital sex, is much reduced.

Research also shows that teens who know that their parents expect them to be sexually abstinent are more likely to make this choice, especially if parents have a warm, supportive, and loving relationship with them.(3,4)

Teens may appear grown up but they usually lack adult mental and emotional maturity. The prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps a person manage impulses, regulate emotions, and forego immediate pleasure for long-term gain) does not reach full maturity until the mid-twenties. Teens have the passion but typically not the “brakes” to control their hormonal urges until about age 25. This is a big reason why teens need consistent guidance from, and conversation with, their parents on these matters.(5)



The conversation depends on the maturity of the child and the family situation.

This conversation involves the parents of the 11 to 12 year old. 

Regulate and monitor your children’s exposure to entertainment media, including TV, movies, magazines, and the Internet. 

Research indicates that watching and listening to sexually explicit material encourages teens to become sexually active earlier. Some TV sitcoms and movies may erroneously be viewed as cute and innocent but in reality teach and model sexual promiscuity (even at young ages) in a way that can change the thinking, emotions, and even behavior of your children. Do not allow children to have a TV or computer in their bedrooms, as this can make it harder to monitor their viewing habits, encourages more screen time, isolates a child from the family, and may lead to earlier sexual activity. Have an Internet filter, be your child’s “friend” on Facebook, and only allow children to surf the Internet when they are supervised and using it for a specific purpose, such as research for a school project.

Communicate to your children that each one of them is special. Tell them specifically as they grow older your expectation that he or she will save sex for marriage.

Teens who know that their parents expect them to be sexually abstinent are more likely to make this choice. When your child is 11 to 12 years old (depending on his or her “maturity” or perceived readiness), consider taking them on a special overnight trip (ideally moms with daughters and dads with sons). During this trip, focus on imparting your values on these issues and helping equip your child to make wise decisions as a teen in a sex-saturated culture. One popular resource with a sexual purity emphasis that some families use for this type of overnight trip is the Passport2Purity Getaway Kit (www.familylife.com/Passport2Purity).

Teach modesty.

Start early and teach your children, especially your daughters, to dress modestly. This can be an opportunity to teach them how valuable they are and to respect themselves. As a parent, you should serve as an example of how to dress well yet modestly. For your daughters, consider discouraging early use of makeup and jewelry, which can make a child appear older and more mature. Focus your compliments on your child’s character traits rather than physical attractiveness.

Help your child make good connections.

Adolescents who are well connected to their families are less likely to participate in high-risk behaviors, including premarital sexual activity.  Some ways to enhance your adolescent’s connection with you and your family include volunteering together, sharing exciting or risky experiences like kayaking, and eating meals together. Intentionally spend time with other families who share your values and who have children the approximate age of your children. Research also suggests that teens who worship with their family may make healthier choices about sex.

Start talking with your children early about these issues.

First messages are the most powerful; why wait until your child hears the wrong thing and then try to correct the misunderstanding?   As a parent, establish yourself as the trusted “expert” to your child on these matters as they grow. If you stand silent on sex while the rest of the world is abuzz about it, children conclude that you cannot help them in this key area or that it is a taboo subject they cannot discuss with you. There is so much you can do in short conversations along the way that help lay a good foundation for when your children are teens, so take advantage of teachable moments.  
For example, when your children are 4 to 5 years of age, talk about how babies are born as boys or girls and how their basic anatomy differs (perhaps you can bring this up when someone you know delivers a baby). Use correct anatomical terms and avoid presenting sexuality as something dirty.   The term “privates” can be a respectful word to use, but define male and female anatomy terms for children so they know the correct words. These “discussions” should be had, of course, at an age-appropriate level, keeping in mind the child’s innocence. In these situations, sometimes “less is more,” answering the child’s questions in a straightforward manner

Keep the conversation going about sexuality as your child grows.

Your children want you to be the one who teaches them about sex, even if they’d never tell you that. Most preteens and teens actually wish their parents would talk to them more about sex. Most teens want you to be the one who initiates these conversations and for you to keep the dialogue going. This will be easier if you start early.  

Help protect your children from pornography.

Many children are stumbling on or being led to pornography at young ages. Seventy percent of children have inadvertently viewed online pornography. The average age of first Internet exposure to pornography is 11 years. Help protect your children by using an Internet filter (such as the free K9 Web Protection, http://www1.k9webprotection.com) or monitor all their online activity using “Screen Retriever” (www.screenretriever.com).

Be a good example.

If you are married, maintain a healthy marriage and loving relationship with your spouse. Many studies report that when teens grow up in a two-parent home in which the parents’ marriage is stable and reasonably happy, the teens are more likely to be abstinent. If you are not married, make wise choices about your own romantic experiences because—as with all parents—your actions serve as an example to your child and are likely to have a big influence on your children’s future choices. Present a positive attitude toward the opposite sex and marriage.

If your child has been sexually abused, access competent counseling and notify proper authorities.

Being sexually abused is a risk factor for engaging in premarital sex as a teen.

Have rules for dating that minimize the dating couple being alone together; single dating is another risk factor for premarital sex.

Make sure you and your teen have discussed arrangements to ensure your teen always has a safe way home in the event he or she is in a potentially dangerous situation (see below).

Do you know the N.I.C.E. way to say “No?”

N – N is for No. No” is said with a firm and low voice. “No” is said with a firm look. No” is said while looking the other person directly in the eyes. Not “I don’t think so” or “not now,” which  shows weakness

I – is for an “I” statement. (“I don’t go with strangers” or “I don’t drink because …”)

C – is for a change of plans, people, or topics. (“I need to check with Julia over there about tomorrow’s game” or “I’m feeling sick to my stomach” or “How ‘bout those Cardinals?”)

E – E is for “Exit.” Each teen always needs a safe way home.


1.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual risk behavior: HIV, STD, & teen pregnancy prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/sexualbehaviors/

2.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trends in the prevalence of sexual behaviors and HIV testing, national YRBS: 1991-2013. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/pdf/trends/us_sexual_trend_yrbs.pdf

3.      Aspy, CB et al, Parental communication and youth sexual behavior. Journal of Adolescence 30 (2007) 449-466.

4.      Brown, JD et al Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics. April 2006, Volume 117/Issue 4.

              5.      Johnson, SB et al, Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in                         Adolescent Health Policy. J Adolesc Health. 2009 September; 45(3): 216-221.


1. American College of Pediatricians position statement, “Abstinence Education,” http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/sexuality-issues/abstinence-education  
2. Flying High: Helping Teens Choose Abstinence by Douglas Abbott and Joseph White (https://www.amazon.ca/Flying-High-Helping-Choose-Abstinence/dp/1932597700 ) 
3. Your Kids at Risk: How Teen Sex Threatens Our Sons and Daughters by Meg Meeker, MD (https://www.amazon.ca/Your-Kids-Risk-Threatens-Daughters/dp/1596985135/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466 433556&sr=1-4-fkmr0&keywords=%E2%80%A2%09Your+Kids+At+at+Risk%3A+How+Teen +Sex+Threatens+Our+Sons+and+Daughters+by+Meg+Meeker%2C+MD ) 
4. Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children by Joe McIlhaney Jr. and Freda Bush (http://store.medinstitute.org/hooked/ ) 
5. God’s Design for Sex series by Carolyn Nystrom (series of four books for kids/teens, each targeted to a different age group ) (https://www.amazon.ca/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-
keywords=God%E2%80%99s+Design+for+Sex+series+by+Carolyn+Nystrom +) 
6. Handout: Facts about Cohabitation for Teens and Young Adults – parents’ edition (http://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Cohabitation-handout-for-parents.pdf ) 
7. Handout: Strategies for Sexual Health for Parents of Teens (https://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Strategies-for-parents-of-teens1.pdf).
8. Resnick MD, Bearman PS, Blum RW, et al. Protecting adolescents from harm: findings from the national longitudinal study on adolescent health. JAMA. 1997;278(10):823-832.