Parents, Teens, and Sex: The Talk

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Are parents’ attempts to keep their teens sexually safe having unintended consequences? 

I came across an article in the December, 2010 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology that looked at adolescent sexual behavior and consequences, and then related these to a variety of parenting factors.  What may surprise some is that the talks that many parents have with their teens to promote sexual safety and/or abstinence were associated with higher levels of sexual initiation, unprotected sex, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  What was the most important factor to guard against sexual risks?  The adolescent’s positive perception of the general parent-adolescent relationship appeared to be key.

Deptula, Henry, and Shoeny used data collected from a large and nationally representative sample of adolescents for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to look at the relationship between several parent variables (sexual communication with the adolescent, parent-child relationship, general parental involvement, parents’ educational aspirations for their adolescent, allowed independence, sexual communication attitudes, discussion of sexual costs, and parent disapproval of the adolescent having sex) and four sexual risk factors (adolescent sexual activity, intercourse without a condom, unintended pregnancy, and STIs).  They also looked at these variables in relation to ethnicity, gender, and age.  Add Health data collection occurred three times: 1994-5, 1996, and 2001-2.

The investigators found that higher levels of adolescent independence and lower levels of parent-adolescent relationship quality significantly predicted lower levels of condom use and this held especially true for younger adolescents.  Additionally, the teens that had lower levels of condom use could be predicted by having parents that disapproved of teen sexual activity.  So the more time the teen had unsupervised, the lesser the quality of his/her relationship with parents, and the more the parents outwardly disapproved of sex, the more likely their teen was to have unprotected sex.

Almost 80% of the adolescents that reported being abstinent during the beginning of the study reported the same a year later.  What predicted sexual activity for the remaining 20%?  Some of the strongest predictors were low parent-child relationship quality, higher levels of parent disapproval of sex, and parents’ talks about sexual costs such as STIs.  That’s right.  The parents that disapproved of sex and emphasized sexual risk had a higher likelihood of having a sexually active teen.

Further, the parents that emphasized sexual costs with their younger adolescents at the beginning of the study had adolescents with a higher rate of STIs at end of it.  Those adolescents with higher parent-adolescent relationship quality had a lower STI rate.

The one significant factor that predicted unintended pregnancy at the end of the study was already having sexual intercourse at the time the study began.  In other words, those teens that reported having sex the longest had a higher rate of unintended pregnancy than their peers.

So what does this study reveal to us?  It appears that the most effective way parents can keep their adolescents sexually safe is by cultivating a positive relationship with them.  In terms of conversations that specifically target sex, the investigators report that their lack of data about the nature of these conversations limits their ability to fully understand them.  They do state, however, that other investigators (Dutra et al., 1999; Mueller & Powers, 1990) found that warm and open communication in general and about sex in particular was associated with lower rates of adolescent sexual activity and/or risk.  In other words, parents may serve their adolescents best by skipping the lectures and moving toward a reciprocal, receptive, and supportive communication style that encourages open discourse about sex and other important topics.

Deptula, D., Henry, D., Schoeny, M. (2010). How can parents make a difference? Longitudinal associations with adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 24 (6), 731-739 DOI: 10.1037/a0021760