Adolescents acquire half of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States, mainly because they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than adults. They are also at increased risk of unintended pregnancy. Preventing STIs and unintended pregnancy can occur through abstinence, monogamy, and the use of condoms and contraception. There are also some vaccinations that can prevent certain STIs. However, these prevention methods need to be properly communicated to adolescents.
Since parents play such an important role in the development of their children, improving parent-adolescent sexual communication has been noted as one factor that could help to encourage adolescents to practice safer sex behavior. Researchers wanted to examine the effect of parent-adolescent sexual communication on safer sex behavior among youth and explore potential moderators of this association. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that sexual communication with parents plays a small protective role in safer sex behavior among adolescents.
The meta-analysis included 25,314 adolescents between with an average age of 15 years who reported sexual communication with one or both parents. The 52 included studies spanned more than 3 decades of research.
The analysis assessed:
The study found that sexual communication with parents was associated with safer sex behavior among youth, including the use of condoms and contraceptives. The effect was stronger for girls than for boys and for communication with mothers versus fathers. The study noted that men and boys are less verbally expressive and open to self-disclosure.
A meta-analysis is a statistical technique in which the results of numerous, similar studies are mathematically combined in order to create a larger pool of data. The larger the pool of data, the more reliable outcomes are. This study included 25,314 adolescents, increasing the power and reliability of the results. However, more targeted research is needed to advance this literature and to better understand the effect that parents have on the health of adolescents.
While talking to your child about sex may be uncomfortable, the topic is too important to ignore. Having short, meaningful talks about sex behavior during early childhood may be more impactful and less daunting than having one big discussion about sex when your child is older and already at increased risk for STIs and unintended pregnancy. Keep in mind that past studies have shown that parents communicate more frequently with girls and are more likely to stress the negative consequences of sexual activity with daughters than with sons. Both sexes play equal roles in safe sexes practices and it is important to teach it to both. Start with conversations about how male and female bodies work and develop, reproduction, healthy relationships, and STI and pregnancy prevention. Encourage your child to come talk to you about any questions they may have even if it feels awkward at first.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Talking to kids about sex and sexuality. Planned Parenthood website. Available at: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/parents/talking-to-kids-about-sex-and-sexuality. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Talking to your child about sex. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: . Updated August 20, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Widman L, Choukas-Bradley S, Noar SM, Nesi J, Garrett K. Parent-adolescent sexual communication and adolescent safer sex behavior. JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(1):52-61. [Epub ahead of print].
Last reviewed November 2015 by Michael Woods, MD