Laura M. Padilla-Walker, PhD Professor, School of Family Life Associate Dean, College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences Brigham Young University

Parents Need To Talk Frequently To Their Children About Sexual Safety Interview with:

Laura M. Padilla-Walker, PhD Professor, School of Family Life Associate Dean, College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences Brigham Young University

Dr. Padilla-Walker

Laura M. Padilla-Walker, PhD
Professor, School of Family Life
Associate Dean, College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences
Brigham Young University What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: The current study included approximately 500 teens that we followed for 8 years starting at approximately age 14.

In this particular study, we explored how parent-child sex communication regarding sexual safety changed from ages 14-18, and then how this change was associated with children’s sexual outcomes at age 21. Though we would hope and expect that parents would discuss sexual safety with their children at increasing levels as children age, findings from this study suggested low and unchanging levels of parent-child sex communication over time. In other words, parents are talking very little to their children about sexual safety, and how much they talk to children isn’t changing from age 14 to 18.

In addition, mothers reported significantly higher levels of sex communication than did children and fathers, suggesting that mothers think they talk about sexuality more than children think they do. Though this is an issue of perception, what the child perceives is generally a more important predictor of positive outcomes. Mothers also reported talking with their sons less than their daughters, though sex communication with sons increased over time and by age 18 mothers reported the same (relatively low) levels of sex communication with both daughters and sons.

That being said, initial levels and positive change in parent-child sex communication was associated with safer sex at age 21, suggesting that parents SHOULD talk with their children more and at increasing levels over time, because these factors are associated with positive child outcomes. What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: First, parents are not talking frequently to their children about sexual safety. Research has long suggested that parents tend to have one big talk, and then assume their work is done. This study suggests that is the case. To give you a more clear idea of how low these levels of parent-child communication were, they were measured on a 4-point scale from 1 (never) to 4 (often) and means hovered (for the most part) between 1 and 2. So parents are talking to their children about sexual safety somewhere between never to seldom.

Second, parents need to talk more frequently to their children about sexual safety. Our findings showed that how much parents talked about sex at age 14 and how much they increased in sex communication over time were associated with safer sex (defined with a measure assessing the use of a variety of forms of birth control) during young adulthood. This finding suggests that higher and increasing levels of parent-child sex communication are more protective for children. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: I think the next step is to more carefully explore the quality of parent-child sex communication. This study only looked at frequency, and that’s one thing that’s important, but quality gets at “how” the parents talk, not just how often. For example, do parents use fear tactics and controlling parenting when discussing sexuality? Or do they promote open communication, mutuality, and positive messages of healthy sexuality? Despite low frequency of sex communication, quality likely also makes an important difference in influence children’s health outcomes. I also think future research should explore aspects of sex communication beyond sexual safety. Parents can and should talk with their children about sexual anatomy, puberty, body image, dating, arousal, sexual values, and a whole host of other topics that may or may not be associated with sexual behavior in teens. We have much to learn!


Longitudinal Change in Parent-Adolescent Communication About Sexuality

Journal of Adolescent Health · September 2018

DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.06.031

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Last Updated on October 2, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD