WCW's Women Change Worlds Blog

Internship Reflection: Fathers Belong in Conversations with Their Teens about Sex and Relationships

Audrey DiMarco

At the beginning of my summer research internship, I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand the impact of fathers talking to their teens about dating and sex. Why would fathers have a significant impact on teens’ sexual health if someone else, like their mother, already has the situation under control? However, after taking a deeper dive into Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D.,’s interview data from fathers, mothers, and teens, I reevaluated my stance.

Through identifying key themes from the families in our sample, Dr. Grossman’s study—part of WCW’s Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative—aims to explore how fathers fit into conversations with their teens about dating and sex, and why it’s hard for some fathers to participate. The study’s findings will be used to develop an intervention program to help give fathers information, strategies, and peer support to surmount obstacles to talking with their teens and promote better sexual health for future generations.

Reflecting on my initial doubts, I can see why I didn’t have much faith in fathers’ ability to communicate with their teens—especially when it comes to taboo topics such as dating and sex. Women are often assumed to be more emotional, caring, and nurturing while fathers are assumed to have difficulty expressing their vulnerable side. Because of these pervasive stereotypes, it’s easy to see how mothers would be the ones to take the primary role and facilitate open conversations with their teens as they explore their sexuality.

Researchers may also lean into this assumption since the majority of prior studies on adolescent communication about dating and sex emphasize mothers’ roles. Even some mothers from our sample indicated that they should be the ones to take charge of these discussions—though they also resoundingly asserted that fathers’ roles are crucial. In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

That’s why I became especially interested in how fathers from our sample practice—or struggle to practice—open communication with their adolescents, as well as how teens from the same families picture an open dialogue.

In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

Fathers from our sample overwhelmingly said they believed that support and connection are important parts of their roles, and open communication is one way to foster these values. Specifically, dads saw it as their duty to give their sons tried-and-true advice that would help them avoid making the same mistakes they did. Additionally, some emphasized the benefits of giving daughters a window into the teenage boy’s perspective to help them better understand their potential dating partners.

Since the stereotypical teenager avoids talking to their parents at all costs, it might be surprising that teens also want open conversations with their dads. Over half of teens from our sample viewed support and connection, including open communication, as part of a father’s role. They wanted their dad to share his advice and experience, providing emotional support while respecting their comfort level and boundaries. A notable focus of the teen perspective is that they didn’t want to be judged or punished for sharing something of which their parents disapprove, such as being sexually active earlier than their family values dictate. As a whole, the data showed that both fathers and teens see some form of open dialogue as part of a father’s role in conversations about dating and sex.

Then why is it hard for many fathers to participate and share their advice? Fathers face many barriers such as embarrassment, discomfort, lack of support, and taboos. One obstacle that stands out to me is that some fathers lack an example from their own parents of how to approach these sensitive topics. The majority of fathers from our sample didn’t talk much or at all with their parents about dating and sex; instead, they learned through siblings, extended family, friends, or even through the media. In many ways, fathers are swimming upstream, trying to be more involved than their parents’ generation while lacking the tools and support they need.

Despite the challenges inhibiting fathers’ involvement in these discussions, many dads in our sample fought these barriers in order to support their teen’s best interests. In doing so, they stood up to the stereotypes, giving their children a healthy example by recognizing their own value and the power of their voice as a father. I’m hopeful that access to resources, such as the intervention program we plan to develop, will give fathers the tools they need to practice open communication and share what they learned from their teenage years. If the fathers of today set a healthy example for their teens, the fathers of tomorrow will be better equipped to talk with and support their children—making an impact that continues for generations to come.


Audrey DiMarco is a psychology major at Wellesley College graduating in 2024. She had the opportunity to work with Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., this past summer through the Class of 1967 Internship Program.

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Fathers Want Guidance on How to Talk to Their Teens About Sex and Relationships

Father talks to his teenage son while sitting in a car

“Some of those conversations, I just can’t jump in like that,” one of the fathers in our study told us. We were interviewing fathers about their experience talking with their teenagers about sex and relationships. Many expressed what this father did: Talking about these topics can be hard, and it would be helpful to have some guidance on how to go about it.

Research has shown that when fathers talk with their teenage children about sex, it can protect teens from risky sexual behavior. But few fathers actually talk with their teens about sex, and those who do report not talking very often. Most research on this topic focuses on mothers, and few interventions (i.e., educational programs) to promote parent-teen talk about sex are tailored for fathers. To develop interventions that effectively support fathers, we need a better understanding of fathers’ goals and challenges for talk with their teens about sexual issues and what they want an intervention program to look like.

My research team and I interviewed 43 fathers of high school-aged teens (age 14-18) to find out about their experiences. We asked them about talking with their teens about dating, sex, and relationships; their attitudes toward a potential intervention to support father-teen talk about dating, sex, and relationships; and for feedback about the structure and content of a potential intervention.

The most striking aspect of our research findings was that fathers were enthusiastic about the idea of an intervention that could guide them in these conversations. This is surprising given low rates of father participation in parent-based sex education programs. Fathers connected their interest in an intervention to the challenges they face in talking with their teens about sex and relationships, such as discomfort with talking about sex and not knowing how to start a conversation. Many said that it’s especially hard to talk with their daughters about sex and relationships, but they also shared a belief that their perspectives and experiences as men could offer useful insight, no matter their teen’s gender.

NFL players come into a training camp, you have rookies, you have mid-level guys, and then you have the old grizzly veterans, and they all share information with each other and learn from one another . . . I think that it’s important for men to be able to learn from other men and to share their experiences so that they can improve each other.

When it comes to an intervention, fathers wanted something more peer-based or interactive than most existing programs. They wanted the opportunity to share experiences and learn from other fathers, especially in the context of programs led by people with backgrounds similar to theirs.

“NFL players come into a training camp, you have rookies, you have mid-level guys, and then you have the old grizzly veterans, and they all share information with each other and learn from one another,” said one of the fathers we talked to. “I think that it’s important for men to be able to learn from other men and to share their experiences so that they can improve each other.”

The fathers we spoke with talked about the importance of discussing topics essential to protecting their teens from harmful experiences such as unhealthy relationships, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. They recognized the importance of talking about consent, which is significant: prior research doesn’t show much focus on consent when parents talk to their teens, and most school-based sex ed programs don’t address it.

Knowing what to talk about is obviously important, but the fathers we spoke with were just as interested in learning how to talk about it, as well as when and how often. One father told us he wanted “more tricks, more tools, more things to help to get the conversation going… things to ease awkwardness.”

Given the potential of conversations between fathers and teens to protect teens’ sexual health, and the lack of existing programs designed to support fathers in these conversations, it’s clear that a useful and engaging intervention is needed. With this study, we’re moving closer to understanding what fathers want and need in an intervention program tailored to them.


Read more about this study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Internship Reflection: Examining the Role Fathers Play in Conversations About Sex and Relationships

Father and son in serious conversation

Conversations centered around dating, relationships, and sex take place in classrooms, on social media, in households, and even in mainstream news outlets. Policymakers, educators, and parents alike realize the benefits of teaching adolescents about these topics instead of leaving teens to learn on their own via the internet, friends, and other less-than-ideal sources. However, one critical group with a wealth of experience and perspective is still largely left out of the conversation: fathers.

According to a 2020 study conducted by Dr. Jennifer Grossman here at WCW, 60% of heterosexual teens talk with their mothers about sex and 32% talk with their fathers. This statistic is a cause for concern: Fathers offer a nuanced perspective, play an important cultural role, and add an often-forgotten voice to this conversation. With this in mind, Dr. Grossman and her research team undertook a study exploring father-teen communication on dating, relationships, and sex with the intention of creating an intervention program for fathers across the U.S.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Grossman and her team as an undergraduate research intern. I took on multiple roles which built on my pre-existing psychology research skill set and exposed me to new tools, protocols, and knowledge. I spent the beginning of the summer quantitatively analyzing demographic data, but I particularly enjoyed the last two months of my internship, when I examined qualitative data.

Dr. Grossman’s team interviewed 43 fathers, 13 teens, and 22 mothers about father-teen communication about dating, relationships, and sex. I analyzed the father interviews and consolidated the data into overarching thematic categories based on what was discussed—including protection methods, healthy and unhealthy relationships, dating and relationships, and cultural and religious views about sex. In doing so, I was astonished by some fathers' powerful personal anecdotes and progressive understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships. I also noticed that few fathers had spoken with their parents about these topics when they were growing up.


More than 90% of the fathers interviewed said that their experience talking (or not talking) with their parents impacts how they speak with their teens now.

After months of analyzing interviews, I created an independent project examining whether and how fathers talked with their own parents about sexual topics and how those conversations impacted their conversations with their teens. Of the 43 fathers interviewed, only 30% had conversations with their own parents about dating, relationships, or sex, and nearly two-thirds of those wished they had talked more with their parents, gone into greater detail, or touched on more subjects. More than 90% of the fathers interviewed said that their experience talking (or not talking) with their parents impacts how they speak with their teens now.

A few fathers who did not talk with their own parents expressed fear of conversing with their teens, but many of these fathers expressed a desire to do things differently than their parents. A few fathers underscored how their lack of discourse negatively impacted their lives; one father noted, “I wish my dad would have done this. He would have saved me this much, you know, pain.”

Fathers also used their personal experiences with teen pregnancy, unhealthy relationships, dating, and their own perspectives when they were adolescents to connect, teach, and “break generational curses.” ​​One father used his personal experience with a sexually transmitted infection to educate his teen about the consequences of unprotected sex. Although he thought this conversation was a bit uncomfortable, he wanted to warn his son so he would not experience the same outcome. These powerful personal anecdotes highlight the advantage of including fathers in these conversations.

This research project—with a focus on prevention—aligns with many of my past intern and volunteer experiences. A few years ago, I volunteered with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, and I was the president of Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone at Wellesley College. These experiences, coupled with my personal and academic background, offered me a unique approach to this project and will inform my post-graduation plans.

This independent project, research opportunity, and connection I’ve made with Dr. Grossman allowed me to consolidate my past experiences into a cohesive narrative and vision. I hope to use this experience and the skills I’ve gained to help me with my independent study on sexual health programming in college settings, my continued collaboration with Dr. Grossman, and graduate school a few years down the line. I am grateful for this research internship and the opportunity to emphasize fathers' central role in the multi-generational narrative around relationships and sex.


Jacqueline Brinkhaus is a student at Wellesley College pursuing a degree in Psychology. Her research interests include health and wellness education, ADHD in women, and interpersonal violence prevention. During the summer of 2021, she worked with Senior Research Scientist Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., with funding from the Joan Freed Kahn '51 Service Program Service Opportunity Stipend through Wellesley College Career Education.

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Internship Reflection: Studying How Extended Family Members Talk to Teens About Sex and Relationships

Nora Pearce, Wellesley College StudentSex education in the American public school system varies from state to state and from school district to school district. The lack of standardized sex education makes family education and conversations about sex and relationships all the more important for teenagers and their development. It is often assumed that parents are the default—that they are the only family members responsible for initiating these conversations. In my research conducted with WCW Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., and Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, M.A., on how extended family members talk to teens about sex and relationships, we learned how communication about these topics spans beyond parents.

For this qualitative study, we interviewed 39 participants in the U.S. who identified themselves as extended family members who talk to a teen in their family about sex or relationships. (We include siblings in the extended family member category because studies suggest there are significant similarities in the way siblings and cousins talk about sex or relationships with teens.) Within our sample, participants reported a wide range of involvement in the teen’s sexuality development. Their diverse experiences showed us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to talking about sex or relationships with teens.

More than 90% of our participants reported that having a personal connection with the teen enabled them to talk about sex and relationships. One of our participants, Jennifer, recounted how she once asked her teenage cousin if she talks with other family members about these topics. “She’s like ‘No,’ she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them anything,” shared Jennifer. “And she feels more comfortable with me. Because we just have that connection.” Qualities such as trust and closeness resonated with other participants who said their close connection with the teen was key to their open conversations.

Some of the extended family members we interviewed coordinated with other family members on what messages they wanted to convey. Lucy and her sisters decided together that they needed to ensure their brother knew about the health risks of being sexually active. “We actually made a slideshow about, um, the different, you know, sexually transmitted diseases and infections,” she said. “And we included — I mean it had to be graphic, but we really wanted to get the point across of, like, why I buy the condoms every month. It’s just you have to protect yourself. So we made him sit down and, like, go through all of our slides.” Other participants said that they were the primary or even the only family member who would talk to the teen about sex or relationships.

Working on this research project prompted me to reflect on my own position in my family network. Reading the interviews inspired me to be more open and intentional in talking about sex or relationships with my teenage cousin. My conversations with her came at a critical time when she was receiving unhealthy and unhelpful messages from other family members about sex or relationships. Building off of our pre-existing family bond and knowing well her family history and living situation, our conversations felt more meaningful and effective for both of us.

This research is an invitation for everyone to reflect on their own family networks and the communication that takes place in the family about sex and relationships. Because as extended family members, we can play a critical and positive role in the lives of teens by having these conversations, even during the pandemic.

To learn more about this study, watch my short video about our findings or check out the article I co-authored with the researchers in the journal Sexes.


Nora Pearce is a student at Wellesley College pursuing a degree in Education Studies and Art History. She was awarded the Morse Fellowship to intern with Dr. Jennifer M. Grossman at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the 2019-2020 academic year.

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Parents' Communication with Teens About Dating is Changing During the Pandemic

Father talking to daughter on couchThe pandemic has altered family life in unexpected ways. Some kids are happier now that they’ve gotten a chance to slow down; more people are cooking; and men have discovered housework. Parents’ conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and their monitoring of their teens’ behavior, have also changed.

My research team — which included WCW Associate Research Scientist Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., WCW Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Ph.D., of Lynch Research Associates — surveyed 328 parents of high school students throughout the U.S. between March and June of this year. We asked questions about how they communicated with their teens about dating and relationships before schools closed due to COVID-19 as compared to afterwards. We also asked questions about their stress levels and whether and how they monitored their teens’ behavior.

What we found was a significant drop in parent-teen communication about dating and relationships once COVID hit. This makes sense: parents reported higher stress levels as many deal with sick family members, essential work requirements, financial difficulties, and the general anxiety of the pandemic, which likely leads them to focus on the immediate day-to-day needs of their families and put off these types of conversations. And with many teens stuck at home, parents may assume that relationships and physical intimacy in particular are on hold, so the need to talk about them is not as critical.

For example, one parent explained, “Having the added stress of constantly being together, and now having to not only be his parent, but his makeshift teacher, and then trying to talk about serious things too, has all been just too much.” Another parent shared, “The fact that kids are not interacting, thus there is no "dating" taking place, which is a little bit more difficult to talk about and put in context when it isn't happening.”

We also found an interesting change in gender roles among heterosexual parents. Mothers reported having fewer conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and fathers reported monitoring their teens’ behavior more closely than before the pandemic. This increase in fathers’ monitoring may in part reflect fathers’ shift from working outside the home to being at home during the pandemic (61% of fathers made this transition compared to 39% of mothers). While mothers are still monitoring and communicating more than fathers, it may be that since many fathers are spending more time at home, parents’ roles have shifted, and fathers are taking a more active part in their teens’ lives.

More research is needed to delve into what this data means, but it’s an important reminder that parenting roles aren’t set in stone. Sometimes a crisis can prompt unpredictable and even positive changes. The way parents have communicated with and monitored their teens in the past doesn’t necessarily dictate their future actions. Thinking outside the box can help; though mothers are often assumed to be the ones in charge of having these conversations, my research has shown that fathers play an important role, as do extended families.

October is National Family Sexuality Education Month, which is as good a time as any to reassess family communication about dating and relationships. Even if teens are at home, they’re likely chatting with peers online, and may be forming new relationships or continuing existing ones. They may have different questions now about what’s appropriate or comfortable in a relationship. Maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them, and consider with fresh eyes who might have that conversation.

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Reflections from an Undergrad at APA Convention

Dr. Jennifer Grossman and Wellesley College student Anmol Nagar at 2019 APA convention.My name is Anmol Nagar and I’m a junior at Wellesley College, originally from the California Bay Area. Over the past year I’ve done research at the Wellesley Centers for Women with Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., through The Class of 1967 Internship Program. Our research was a qualitative analysis of how teens talk with their extended family members about sex and relationships. As a psychology minor and an older sister to a young teen, this topic is incredibly relevant and personal to me and our research has been highly rewarding.

In early August, I had the opportunity to go to the American Psychological Association convention in Chicago, IL, because Dr. Grossman’s and my research was chosen to be presented in a symposium called Enhancing At-Risk Teens' Resilience -- Extended Family's Role in Promoting Teens' Sexual Health. Dr. Grossman, Dr. Judith B. Cornelius of UNC Charlotte, and Dr. Emma Sterrett-Hong of the University of Louisville shared their research at the symposium.

2019 American Psychological Association panel speakersAt the end of the presentation, Dr. Gary W. Harper, another prominent researcher in the field at the University of Michigan, gave a summary statement. Then, a Question and Answer section allowed the audience to give their thoughts and ask questions. One question about the applicability and implementation of the work was particularly interesting and sparked questions about policy making and action programs -- potentially a space for future collaboration!

After the symposium, the presenters discussed potential connections and room for future collaboration. Besides our symposium section, Dr. Grossman and I attended a couple of other presentations about aging and dementia and explored the different booths. I had the opportunity to talk to interesting people about everything ranging from graduate school options to healthcare technology working to improve mental health diagnoses.

Apart from the conference, I was able to explore Chicago on my own for a couple of hours! I walked along the waterfront, saw the very famous Bean, and sat in Grant Park for a while. It was my first time in the city, and I can definitively say that Chicago pizza is the best.

Overall, my experience was an exciting chance for me to see the research that I’ve worked so hard on make it to the “big stage” and talk to people who were interested in similar things. I also learned so much about the plethora of post grad options to continue in this field and similar ones. I’m so grateful to the Lloyd family and the Class of 1967 for funding my internship at the Wellesley Centers for Women and for making it possible for me to attend this conference!

Anmol Nagar ’21 was the Linda Coyne Lloyd Intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women during the 2018-19 academic year. She studies economics and psychology at Wellesley College and will be studying at the London School of Economics for her junior year.

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Let's Talk about Sex

October is Let’s Talk Month, part of a national campaign to encourage families to talk with teens about sex and relationships. In March 2013, I shared tips on how parents can talk with their teens about sex. Today, I’m going to pass on some reasons why talking with middle schoolers about sex is important and how this may support younger teens’ health.

Here’s what’s important to know:

Almost one-third of teens have sex by 9th grade. A recent nationwide study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 28% of girls and 32% of boys reported having had sex by the 9th grade.

Early sex puts teens at risk for poor school and health outcomes. Teens who have sex at an early age are more likely to drop out of school, get a sexually transmitted infection, or have an unintended pregnancy than teens who wait until they are older to have sex.

Talking with teens about sex can make a difference. Parents talking with teens about sex and relationships can make it more likely that teens will wait to have sex and, when they do have sex, that they will use protection.

It’s important to talk with teens before they have sex. Research tells us that it is critical for teens to learn about sexual issues from a trusted adult before they have sex.

Here's what we learned from our evaluation of Get Real,* a comprehensive middle school sex education program:

    Sex education that supports parent-teen conversations about sex and relationships can help to delay sex. In schools where the Get Real sex education program was taught, 16% fewer boys and 15% fewer girls had sex compared to boys and girls in schools that taught sex education as usual. This means that sex education during middle school can support teens’ sexual health.

    Don’t forget to talk with your sons about sex! Boys who completed Get Real family activities in the 6th grade—which focused on a wide range of issues, from anatomy to relationship values—were more likely to delay sex in 8th grade than boys who didn’t complete them. Many parents talk with their daughters about sex earlier and more often than their sons. Talking with sons early and often can help to support their sexual health, too.

Communication is key! Let’s Talk!

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She co-directed an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating sex communication in the nuclear family and beyond and the implications for health interventions.

* Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works is a middle school program, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, that delivers accurate, age-appropriate information and emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement.

 

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The Birds, the Bees, and the Stomach Butterflies

teenboydad

March is Talk with Your Teen about Sex Month. Why talk about sex with our kids?

In her recent talk at Wellesley College, Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, reminded us that parents are the most important source of sex education for their children. National studies agree. When parents talk about sex with their kids, it can help them postpone having sex and make it more likely teens will use protection when they do have sex. Our research at Wellesley Centers for Women found that this is particularly important in delaying sex for boys.

Here are some take-home messages from our own and others’ research on how parents and teens talk about sex and relationships. The quotes are from our interviews with parents of middle school students.

“I’m willing to go there with her (talk about sex), because I know that I had trouble speaking with my mom about it when I was younger. So I know I need to be there and play that role. And if I don’t talk to her about it, she’ll find out on her own, and that’s not the way that I want that to happen.”

Why is it so hard for us to talk to our kids about sex?

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Well this is how your penis works.’ You know? Okay, I’ll try to figure it out and I don’t want to sound stupid in front of the kid.”

- Parents often feel embarrassed and may not know how to start conversations about sex
- Parents don’t know where to get accurate information to share with their kids
- Kids are embarrassed too, but it’s important for them to hear from you
- Once you start (even with a small conversation), it will get easier

How do we do it? Tips on talking with teens about sex

“You’re basically informing them and, you know, letting them know that you’re there. And then you kind of just have to take it as it comes, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

- Figure out what’s important to you and share it with your kids
- Listen to what your kids have to say (or what they may have trouble saying)
- Keep the door open – sometimes the first conversation is just an icebreaker
- Give your kids medically accurate information about sex
- Talk with your kids before they have sex

Who can help?

“He still talks about things that he learned in (sex education) class. He still makes a reference to it when we’re talking about things. One of the funny things that doesn’t happen anymore is any reference to sex, we don’t shy away from it if it does come up. He’s just more accepting that it’s a part of life at this point.”

- Just because you didn’t talk about sex growing up with your own family, doesn’t mean you can’t talk with your own kids about sex
- Even when you’re embarrassed, you can still have good conversations with your teens about sex
- You are not alone

  • o Think about friends and family you trust who can be part of the conversation (e.g., aunts, uncles, older siblings, godparents)

o Find out if your teen has a sex education class at school and ask your teen about it
o Here are some resources for information and support to talk to your teens about sex:

10 tips for parents (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)

Communicating with Youth: Themes for Parents to Remember (Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts)

Help your teen make healthy choices about sex (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She co-directs an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating what works and what gets in the way of family communication about sexuality among diverse families.

 

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