How much sexual activity is going on in middle school? There is some, but not as much as you would think if you only listened to news reports and the scores of rumors that make the rounds among parents. But the truth is that there really is no hard data on sexual activity in this age group. Some studies estimate that 20% of young teens (under the age of 14) have engaged in some form of sexual activity. But according to Dr. Elizabeth Rose, an adolescent medicine specialist practicing in New Jersey, the studies are anything but conclusive or accurate. Reliable large-scale studies have just not been done. In her own experience in her suburban practice, “All the kids are talking about it, but very few are actually doing it.”

So as a parent of a middle school student, what should you do? You want to discuss this with your child, but you don’t know how? And should you bring this subject up at all?

The answer, according to Dr. Rose is yes. Throughout their school they are hearing about it and many kids are very anxious about it. Many of them are not ready for physically or emotionally for any sexual activity. We may call them Tweens, but developmentally, kids in this age group are more like children, than teenagers. And remember, even in the studies that have been done, 80% of middle school students are not sexually active in any way. So this is frightening for many young teens especially those aged 9-12 many of whom have barely hit puberty. The most important thing that parents, doctors, and health educators can do is to help dispel the myths and relieve these fears.

Remember, the media has saturated your young teens world with sexual images and references. Television, Movies, and Music have had increasing levels of sexual content for some time, but it is the Internet and social media that has brought this content even closer to your children on their computers, their iPads, and their smart phones. They are constantly exposed to a culture with a level of sexuality that is unprecedented. And they are not ready for it. I remember my daughter at the age of 12 coming to me and complaining with a sigh, “Mom, why is everything about sex?” I couldn’t give her an answer, but I remember it led to a good talk.

So how do you begin the conversation?

Pick the right moment,
While driving in the car, you have a captive audience, and even if a child doesn’t look at you he or she may be listening. Or while watching TV with your child (which I highly recommend) look for examples on TV to bring a subject up. (There will be plenty of opportunities if you watch programming for teens)

How do you start the conversation?
Always start by asking about other kids, it’s a safer starting point. For example, “I read something today that bothered me and I want to get your opinion.” Or “I was wondering do kids in your class actually date?” or “Do any of your friends have (girlfriends or boyfriends)?”

How do you get into the tricky stuff?
Once the conversation has started, be direct. Start with something like: “Do you know what sexting is?” “Do you know if this is something that some kids are doing in your school?” Then you can move into other areas such as questioning them about their knowledge of oral sex or intercourse. When I asked patients in my practice these questions, as pediatricians and adolescent medicine doctors are trained to do, the answers were very similar. “Yeah I heard some rumors but I don’t know anyone who was really doing it.” When I would ask how do you feel about this? Often the answers were, “It makes me nervous” “I don’t want to go out with boys because I don’t want to do that” “I think it is gross. “These kids needed to vent their anxiety and were relieved if I told them they were in good company.

Then what do you do?
First of all, make sure they have all the correct information. It’s very common for kids to get the facts all wrong. For example, according to Dr. Rose, many teens do not believe that oral sex is a form of sex or that they can get sexually transmitted diseases if they engage in this. Once you are sure they have all the facts, ask their opinion about the issues. Be sure to listen, and then express your own opinion. Allow room for discussion. Reassure your child that not everyone is doing this. If the talk leads to other issues about sexuality, consider yourself lucky. If your child doesn’t respond, just give them some time to digest the information.

What role can your doctor play?
Most pediatricians are trained to discuss these issues with your child beginning at age eleven or twelve. You will probably not be in the room. Your pediatrician will discuss these issues in a responsible and age appropriate way with your young teen. If you know that your child has been engaging in early sexual behavior or if you are having more serious problems, your pediatrician can refer you to an adolescent medicine specialist, like Dr. Rose, who has even more extensive training with adolescents.

But having a pediatrician or adolescent specialist speak to your child is not a replacement for a parent conversation. Statistics do show that kids, who are involved with their families, are less likely to engage in early sexual activity. It may be a conversation that’s hard to start, but the unspoken message to your child will be: that you understand, you care, and you are there.