The conversation surrounding parenting and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) often focuses on how parents can teach their kids to avoid getting one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STI rates are especially high among people between the ages of 15 and 24.
What happens when a teen does get an STI, and how can parents proceed? Ahead, moms who have gone through it share how they handled the news, and what they wish they'd done differently.
What it's like when your kid is diagnosed with an STI
Diane S. (last name withheld for privacy reasons), an Illinois mom of three, tells Yahoo Life she felt “utterly lost” when her 16-year-old daughter developed cold sores that turned out to be herpes. “I think I was in shock for days after we got the results back from the clinic,” she says. “I imagined it was some sort of an infection or allergy, and not an STI she’d have to live with for the rest of her life.”
The teen began developing sores on her mouth and genitals a few weeks after she got back from a sleepover with friends. It is unclear exactly how she might have gotten infected, but of course there’s speculation.
“We’d had the sex talk and I’d tried to educate her on how to protect herself. Ultimately, we had agreed that she would wait until after high school to be sexually active. To find out she wasn’t added another layer of disappointment,” Diane says.
The subsequent months at their home were tense, and she admits she was unsure how to handle the situation. Ultimately, she and her husband decided to ground their daughter, which she says did more harm than good.
Maggie A. tells Yahoo Life that as a single mom she felt ”deeply ashamed” after her own daughter’s herpes diagnosis. “I’ll admit that I was ashamed for her,” she says. “I often wondered how she would navigate romantic relationships in the future. I could not hide how I felt, and my daughter could pick up on it, unfortunately. That really damaged our relationship.”
Vanessa also struggled with how to respond when her 17-year-old daughter was diagnosed with chlamydia after months of what she describes as a standoff.
“My husband is angry, I‘m angry, and here comes my daughter angry at us for being angry. It was madness,” she tells Yahoo Life. “After a while, I realized I needed to give her the same grace my parents gave me when I was her age.”
Vanessa says she was aware that her daughter was sexually active.
“I know what I was up to at her age, so I got her on birth control. I’ll admit that I thought my responsibility to her ended there,” she says. “I’m honestly unsure of why I didn’t give both topics [pregnancy and STI prevention] equal attention. I know I talked to her about AIDS, but I was mostly focused on her not becoming a teen mom.”
Diane also acknowledges that the “sex talk” she’d had with her daughter focused on preventing pregnancy. While she knew STIs were a possibility, she hadn’t considered her teen being affected.
What an expert says
Glossing over the risk of STIs isn’t uncommon, says Bridgett Khoury, California-based founder of the School of Sexuality. She says that during conversations about sex, most parents tend to overlook STIs in favor of pregnancy prevention.
“STIs are a very stigmatized subject, and it’s understandable that talking to your young ones about them can be very intimidating and awkward. But it’s important nonetheless," Khoury says.
Parents can inform their kids about the risk of STIs, and the best ways to prevent them, without leaning on scare tactics, Khoury adds.
“Often the goal for many parents is to scare their young ones straight, which rarely works,” she says. “This just compounds the stigma. It’s important to remember that while sex comes with many risks, it can also bring many joyful experiences too.”
In the event that a teen is diagnosed with an STI, a parent may struggle with feelings of disappointment, anger or shame. Khoury recommends that parents acknowledge these emotions while engaging in an empathetic discussion with their child.
“Admitting that you feel the way you feel is a good start," she says. "Being vulnerable and honest can lead to a bonding experience and help avoid passing on trauma. It also reaffirms that you are a safe person to talk to."
Give teens space to process their own feelings too. "Being empathetic while maintaining boundaries is important when dealing with young people who may be lashing out," Khoury says. "Let them know that it’s OK to have big feelings about this.”
Life coach Bayu Prihandito agrees that teens who are dealing with a diagnosis need extra emotional support.
"It’s important to regularly check in with your young ones as well as remind them of their worth outside of this one event," Prihandito tells Yahoo Life. "Engage in activities that they love." He adds that family therapy sessions might also help defuse any conflict over the situation.
Depending on what the diagnosis is, parents should also prioritize their child's physical health. What treatments do they need? What discussions need to be had with past (and future) sexual partners? How will this affect their health going forward? Navigating these questions can be overwhelming for anyone, especially a young person, and parents can help by gathering information and offering support where needed.
Ultimately, parents should aim to have the kind of honest relationship in which a child can come to them with an issue like this, even if the news is hard to hear. "You don't have to know all the answers, but you do have to let your teen know that there isn't any topic that is off-limits,” says Khoury. “When they do talk to you about sensitive topics, try to approach them without judgment."