Teens, sex, and power of parents

Study finds strong impact of moms on adolescent sexual activity.

Moms and dads everywhere, take heed. The once standard parent/child rite of passage – "the birds and bees speech" – is on the way out.

When it comes to sex education, and whether adolescents become sexually active, parental guidance is most influential when it delivered with warmth, openness, and ongoing effort.

And to the surprise of many parents, such efforts are welcomed. While it may seem that youths are more attuned to peers, media, and pop culture, experts and teens alike say parents are needed as role models and cultivators of values in today's confusing, image-saturated culture.

"We have reclaimed the lost fact that parents matter to teens when it comes to teaching them about sexuality," says Robert Blum, coauthor of a report released Wednesday based on the largest-ever survey of adolescent sexual behavior. "Even as parents tend to think their influence is waning during the teen years, this shows there is a significant and ongoing effect."

Wednesday's report, part of an ongoing federal study of thousands of young people and their parents, focused especially on the guiding role of mothers. But researchers say the evidence makes a case, more broadly, for the benefits of strong parent-child relationships.

It comes against a backdrop of challenges and progress. As of 1995, when the survey was getting under way, 19 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys said they had sexual intercourse by age 14. The new report did not update those figures.

But Dr. Blum and others say that over the past decade, pregnancy rates among adolescents have dropped steadily. Rates of some key, sexually transmitted diseases have fallen 50 percent over the same time. The use of condoms is up, and more teenagers are delaying sexual activity. Yet there are still a million teen pregnancies a year, half of all new HIV infections occur in those under 25, and only half of sexually active teens report using condoms.

The growing consensus, say researchers: Parental discussions of such topics need to start earlier – as early as lower elementary school (in age-appropriate discussions) – and parents' actions speak louder than words in transmitting key values.

"At the broadest level, the most important message of this research is that parents matter," says Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

IN yesterday's report, researchers found that mothers who were actively engaged in the lives of their daughters – who knew their friends, and friends' parents, for example – significantly delayed early sexual activity by those daughters. Mothers generally felt more comfortable talking about sex with their sons than with their daughters, but their influence on sons' behavior was not as strong.

Other parental factors that may make a key difference, the study concludes, include having high expectations for school, having rules and regulations, knowing where one's child is, and having meals together. "We too often hear parents lament that once their child is 12 or 13, they are drowning in outside influences out of their control," says Brown. "The point of these findings is parental guidance remains supremely important throughout the teen years, whether it seems so or not."

Other findings include:

• For older teenage boys, as well as younger teens of both sexes, a connectedness with mothers – the perception that mom is warm and caring – makes a difference.

• Teens whose mothers are highly religious are no less likely than other teens to start having sex.

• Even when mothers strongly disapprove of their kids having sex (and most do), 30 percent of girls and nearly 45 percent of boys do not believe they strongly disapprove.

• Many parents don't know what sexual practices their kids are engaged in. When teens said they have had sexual intercourse, half of mothers believed those same children had not. By contrast, when teens said they had not had sex, their mothers almost always believed accurately that this was the case.

The study noted nonparental factors influencing teen sexual activity – biological, genetic, economic, and educational – but found that parents play a key role regardless of other circumstances.

"One of the most helpful findings in the ... study is the realization that the issue is complex and not simple," says Doug Kirby, senior research scientist at ETR Associates, a health-education research institution. "It's not saying what sexual values should be, or exactly how a parent should behave, or that one approach works for everyone."

Several experts say the findings are the broadest yet to underline what they find anecdotally in their local clinics. "We find all the time ... that parents can't just lecture and talk to kids about these issues. They have to develop communication and real relationships," says Kristin Moore, president and senior scholar of Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. "Many of today's parents erroneously back off in response to adolescent's pushing them away in their search for autonomy and identity formation."

Researchers also say youth-serving agencies should promote greater parent-child connectedness. "All the research is now showing the spotlight on where we need to reform, says Tina Hoff of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "It's taking our relationships with adolescents more seriously across the board."

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