The goal of this project was to understand how teens and their families (both parents and extended family) talk about sex and relationships, and whether and how this communication can support teens' healthy development. This project explored how family conversations about relationships support high school students’ health, delay sex, and reduce teen pregnancy. The ultimate aim of research on extended family sexuality communication is to support teens’ healthy decisions so they can remain in school.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that by 12th grade 60% of Massachusetts teens have had sex (2015). Research shows that talking with parents about sex can protect teens from risky sexual behavior, such as early sex or sex without a condom. However, half of teens and parents don’t talk with one another about sex and relationships, in part due to teens’ concerns that their parents might judge them or worry about their sexual behaviors. Many teens are reluctant to talk with their parents about sex and may seek out other family members as a more comfortable option. Indeed, over half of teens report that they talk with extended family members, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings and cousins. These conversations can provide a unique opportunity for relatives to share tools that can protect teens from early sex, STIs, and pregnancy. Talking with extended family is particularly relevant for Black and Latinx teens for whom extended family often has a major influence in childrearing. However, little is known about the topics of teens’ conversation with these family members, the messages and values family members share with teens, and how these conversations influence teens’ health.
This study included a 1-time survey of 11th and 12th-grade students in the Fall of 2017. Survey items included teens’ reports of the content, frequency, and quality of conversations about sex and relationships with family members, and questions about their own sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. This study also included phone interviews with 30 adult family members about how they talked with teens about relationships and what resources would support health-promoting conversations with teens.
Relevance for Practice
Family conversations about sex are important to students’ academic success as they can prevent risky sexual behavior which can lead to teen pregnancy and school-drop-out. The project aimed to provide schools and curriculum developers with direction on whether and how to include family members in health education programs, for example through home-based activity assignments. Providing resources and support for teens’ health-promoting communication with family members may be especially important among diverse families where extended family members may play key childrearing roles.
In this study, researchers found that almost half of the teens they surveyed are talking to extended family about dating, sex, and relationships. Additionally, they found that teens who talk with extended family about protection from sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy had sex with fewer people. This suggests that extended family can play a role in supporting teens' sexual health.