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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kids Want Talk on Tough Issues, Poll Says

LOS ANGELES -- A year after her first period arrived, Miriam Cruz began to wonder what sex was like and how she would know when she was ready. But she hesitated asking her mother. "I was afraid she might think I want to do it,'' she said.

Miriam was 10, and when she finally found the courage to ask, her mother was surprised. But to the girl's relief, her mother answered without judging her, telling her all girls are different.

Today's children have grown up in a culture steeped in sex, violence and substance abuse, and yet, a new national poll affirms that they still want more information than they are getting about some of the most serious challenges they will face.

What's more, according to the poll, they need that information much sooner than most parents realize.

According to the survey, 80 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds want to know more about being safe from violence, 73 percent want to know how to protect themselves from AIDS, 66 percent want information about sexually transmitted diseases, and 58 percent want to know how to deal with pressure to have sex.

Many parents have a false sense of security because they supervise their children or set strict curfews, said Encino, California, pediatrician Dr. Howard Reinstein. But he said, "I'm amazed at what young adolescents do, like having sex in cars, at parties, at the mall.''

The poll was sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the advocacy group Children Now and the Advertising Council as part of a national, multimillion-dollar campaign, "Talking With Kids About Tough Issues.'' Through print, television and radio public service ads, and referrals to Boys and Girls Clubs, the campaign aims to encourage and help parents begin talking to children about the toughest issues before they reach the risk-taking, lecture-averse teen years.

The poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, which interviewed 1,961 parents and children in a national random sample in October. "We've always known parents are uncomfortable, unwilling or unable to talk about some of these tough issues,'' said Reinstein, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. But, he said, the poll clarified the best window of opportunity for these conversations. "The reality is, kids [between age 8 and 12] would like to talk,'' he said.

But most families wait too long to start sensitive conversations, according to parents interviewed in the survey. The survey noted that 62 percent of parents of children between 8 and 12 talked to their children about sex, for instance, only when children raised the issue. Less than a third had had specific discussions about handling pressure to have sex, becoming sexually active or how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Parents' availability is often as much a problem as their reticence or embarrassment, said Boston psychologist Richard Lerner, former editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Still, he agreed that considering the life-or-death nature of many problems facing today's youth, it is crucial for parents to find non-frightening ways to talk frankly with younger children. Not only are problems relating to unsafe sex, violence, or drug or alcohol use arising at earlier ages, but they're occurring in combinations, he said. "Half the kids between 10 and 17 in America engage in two or more of those behaviors," he said.