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How to Talk to Your Kids About HIV and AIDS

Making Space for Needed Conversations

Parents and guardians play a big role in the health and wellbeing of their children. They do everything from preparing nutritious foods to making appointments to watching over mental health. However, sexual health is often left out of everyday health discussions.

But sexual health, including information about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), is just as important as other aspects of health. Get the rundown below on how to have these conversations. Kathryn Macapagal, PhD, a Northwestern Medicine clinical health psychologist with expertise in sexual health and behavior, HIV prevention, and sexual and gender minority populations, offers tips.

Listen to Experts

Start talking about topics like HIV and sex — such as bodies, gender and consent — with children early on. By openly talking about these topics, you normalize discussing sexual health, explains Dr. Macapagal. Then, when HIV and other STIs come up, they are simply a part of the conversations you are already having.

Some additional tips that she shares:

  • Ask your child what they know about HIV and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and where they learned it. Opening with a question allows for a conversation rather than a lecture. Asking where they got their information gives you a sense for what sources they are relying on.
  • Build on learning opportunities. If sexual health topics come up in daily conversation, such as in social media or on the radio or television, use that as a way to open dialogue. Dr. Macapagal says an example of this is saying, "On the radio just now, they were talking about HIV and AIDS. Do you know about HIV and AIDS?"
  • Reject misconceptions. There is often a knowledge gap when it comes to HIV and AIDS. So, be quick to dispel any myths, such as:
    • They only affect gay men.
    • They are no longer a problem.
    • There is no way to prevent or treat HIV.
  • Own your upbringing. You might not have had the best experiences with your parents or guardians regarding talking about sex and STIs. Still, it is critical that you work past that to help your child.
  • Know there is never a "wrong time." These conversations are always important. Make sure you have accurate information about HIV and STIs, though. Your healthcare team is often a good place to start. Some other credible resources are The Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) at Northwestern University, Planned Parenthood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research (CFAR).
  • Practice openness. Talk with your kids in ways that are open, honest and gentle. This opens up the door for them to come back to you with questions in the future.

If you need a baseline set of facts to help guide these talks, start with a sex education refresher. Then use some of the following guidelines:

  • Activities that raise the risk of HIV and other STIs include:
    • Having anal, vaginal or oral sex without a condom. (There is still a small risk when using a condom, however.)
    • Having multiple sex partners.
    • Having anonymous sex partners.
    • Having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which can lower inhibitions and result in sexual risk-taking behaviors.
  • Ways to lower your risk of STIs and HIV:
    • Ask your physician if pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a good option for you to prevent HIV infection. PrEP is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for HIV-negative teens and adults weighing at least 77 pounds to reduce the risk of sexually-acquired HIV-1 infection. PEP is a medication that you take after a possible exposure to HIV. It is only for emergency situations, and you must start it within 72 hours of possible exposure
    • Use a new condom correctly each time you have vaginal, anal and oral sex throughout the entire sex act (from start to finish).
    • Limit or eliminate drug and alcohol use before and during sex.
    • Have an honest and open talk with your healthcare team. Ask whether you should be tested for STIs and HIV.

 "It's common to feel uncomfortable, but we have to talk about these things," says Dr. Macapagal. "You can set the stage for the health of your kids."