Family conversations with teens about sex can reduce risky teen sexual behavior. To be effective, these conversations about sex need to fit with teens’ developmental stage and experiences. However, most studies in this area focus on a single point in time, not accounting for how family communication changes as teens age. Research can help guide parents as to whether and how to talk with their children about sex in ways that are relevant for and accessible to teens at different developmental stages, particularly late adolescence, a time of sexual experimentation and risk-taking.
This study is the first in-depth, longitudinal examination of teen-parent sexuality communication over three key adolescent developmental periods, including the rarely studied period of emerging adulthood (age 18-22). The study also examines how factors like teen gender and the gender match between a teen and parent shape family communication about sex and relationships. For example, parents share different messages with daughters than sons about sex.
This study builds on two prior studies. The first, funded by the WCW 35th Anniversary Fund, captured qualitative data from teens in 7th grade. The second study, funded by NICHD, captured qualitative data from the same sample of teens in 10th grade. In this study, researchers conducted a third wave of teen and parent interviews during emerging adulthood with the same sample.
The researchers’ findings showed that parents continued to talk with their emerging adult children about sex and relationships. Whereas the topics of conversation were similar over time, the content shifted, with a growing focus on specific relationships and situations. Parents described the gender of their teen/emerging adult children as important in shaping their comfort in talking with them about sex and relationships.
This study contributes to public health by providing recommendations for parents, health providers, and educators as to how family sexuality communication can support teens’ health across multiple stages of adolescence, while accounting for family- and gender-based characteristics.
The findings about emerging adulthood in particular suggest that it may provide ongoing opportunities for parents and their children to talk in open and connected ways about sex and relationships. Programs that support family communication about these topics could expand to address the changing needs of adolescents and emerging adults as they develop, and the ongoing role of parents in supporting their children’s health beyond adolescence.
This work was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: R03HD095029.