What does prevention mean?

A friend of mine with a 7th grade daughter and I were just talking on the phone, and as we were saying goodbye, she mentioned that her friends with 7th grade children have disparate views on what prevention means.  She didn’t have time to into what she meant, but wanted to save the conversation for a time when we could really get into the nitty-gritty of it.  But it got me thinking, and so here I am writing.

First I want to point out what a negative view it is to always be working to prevent something – although this is still the predominant perspective.  I understood exactly what my friend meant when she said “prevention.”  She was without a doubt referring to those Issues that parents of teenagers stress about – sex, drugs, alcohol, lying.  Generally parents try to keep their kids from these things out of concern about rape, STDs, unplanned pregnancy, emotional turmoil, addiction, legal ramifications, and an intrinsic desire for their children to do what they say.  But there is rarely real analysis on an individual level.

(Because, of course, it’s what I tend to focus on, I’m going to narrow this conversation about prevention to sex.)

An example of individual analysis: My husband has a friend who has a 17 year old daughter.  Let’s call the friend Dave.  Dave was freaking out about his daughter being 17, going on and on about how much sex he had at 17, saying he just knew that his daughter was having just as much sex and wasn’t telling him.  After listening to Dave go on at some length, my husband finally interrupted and asked, “Well, was it ultimately a bad thing for you that you had all that sex at 17?”  Dave stopped and thought: “Well, no.”  And my husband continued: “Was it bad for your girlfriend?”  Dave: “Well, no.”  Hmm.

Sometimes lots of sex at 17 is bad, and sometimes it’s not bad.  But one of the factors about whether the sex will be bad or not is whether the young person has a trusted adult to help access pregnancy and STD prevention methods and to provide emotional support.  A lack of these very necessary things can lead very quickly to sex that ends up being bad for the individuals involved.

Another example: Several adults I know, including both friends and students, have said that they looked over a lot of their pain during their early sexual encounters because they didn’t know what sex was supposed to look or feel like.  They didn’t know what a sexual relationship was supposed to be, and so they stayed in relationships that were bad for them, emotionally and sexually.  All of these people have said that they wished they had had an adult they could talk with about sex, so they could have learned that their relationships were not normal, were not what a sexual connection must (or even should) look like.

And one last example: When I was a young teenager, I had an adult friend who would whisper “Don’t have sex” to me all the time.  We lived together, so we’d be passing each other in the hallway and she’d say it, so quietly as to be beyond hearing.  We’d be cooking dinner, and she’d say it in the middle of another sentence while chopping onions.  I wasn’t have sex at the time, so following her command wasn’t really a problem.  But when I did start having sex, there was no way that she would have been someone I would have gone to for help.  Looking back, I’m sure that she meant the best for me, and knowing her as an adult I suspect that if I had gone to her for access to birth control or condoms or even advice, I’m sure she would have been thoughtful, supportive, and a generally all-around fabulous help.  But from my perspective as a teenager, I wrote her off because I didn’t see any variation or well-rounded-ness in her approach to me and sex.

But really, I hear you asking, what does this have to do with prevention?  Isn’t prevention about keeping our children from having sex?  Not figuring out how to guide them if they are having sex, because that’s Plan B, assuming that Plan A (them not having sex at all) fails?

Well, let’s start by looking again at what we’re trying to prevent:

Rape.  The decision to have sex or not does not impact the possibility of being raped.  This is a complete and utter fallacy.

STDs.  There are two very effective ways of preventing the transmission of STDs: education and condoms.  You need heavy doses of both of them, before being faced with a situation where they’re needed.  Abstinence from all sexual activity is, of course, the best method prevention, but the failure rate is far higher than that of condoms.

Unplanned pregnancy.  See STDs.

Emotional turmoil.  This is one of the biggest.  When parents are talking about preventing the other three things, I find that this one is generally what they’re actually getting at, but are either unclear or uncomfortable actually saying so.  But the reality is that we just can’t do it.  Our children will be hurt, whether they have sex or not.

All that said, I would like to turn the understanding of what prevention means on its head.  Rather than try and prevent these four things (two of which we can’t really prevent anyway and two of which are prevented quite nicely with condoms and education), I’d like to re-frame what we’re trying to prevent.

Let’s try to prevent teenagers from feeling alone and without support from their families.  Let’s try to prevent teenagers from being without information and condoms when they need them most.  Let’s try to prevent teenagers from staying in a relationship because they don’t know what a normal, healthy relationship looks like.

We have far more influence over these things, although we never have control.

P.S. Confidential to A:  While it is true that the best method of rape prevention would be for people not to commit rape, simply stating this is hardly an effective way of preventing rape.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Amen, sister! 🙂 Knew we were on the same page.

  2. Beautiful post, Karen. I love your turning what we are trying to prevent on its head. Yes, let us prevent teenagers from feeling alone! And, let us be witnesses to their pain, even knowing we can’t prevent it. We can help them heal, by trusting them to figure out their own values, their own path, by being allies to them in their journey towards adult wholeness.

  3. Thanks, Ruth! I would just love it if we could re-frame so many of these adolescent development and adolescent sexuality issues!

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