When parents talk to their teens about dating, relationships, and sex, research shows that it can protect teens from engaging in risky sexual behavior. But for most teenagers (and parents) those conversations are uncomfortable. In fact, parents should not be surprised that some teens prefer to discuss those rather tricky topics with extended family members rather than parents. What we don’t know yet is whether those conversations with other family members also protect teens from making risky sexual decisions.
To date, most research about family sexuality communication has focused on teens and their parents. Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is expanding this topic to include conversations with extended family members -- older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents -- to capture the broader context of teens’ family communication and understand how extended family members can help teens make smarter decisions about dating, sex, and relationships.
“This line of research may be particularly relevant for Black and Latino families, where extended family members are more likely to play key child rearing roles,” said Grossman.
In April 2018, Grossman, a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, and her team -- Amanda Richer, Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., Ineke Ceder, and Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. -- published their latest research on this topic in Family Relations, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Wiley-Blackwell.
In their qualitative study of 22 teens, 86 percent of participants reported talking with both parents and extended family about sex and relationships. Teens were more likely to describe parents than extended family as sharing messages about delaying sex and avoiding teen pregnancy. However, they were more likely to describe conversations with parents as awkward and uncomfortable, while they viewed extended family as easy to talk to. Teens also described shared life experiences with extended family members as a reason to talk with them about sex.
“The research showed that extended family played a somewhat different role than parents in teens’ sexuality communication, but family members shared a common set of values,” said Grossman, “This indicated that extended family could be a valuable sexuality communication resource for teens.”
Grossman and her team are now following up on that research with their study, Adolescent Communication with Family and Reproductive Health, funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.
The team is currently analyzing data from surveys they conducted with over 800 teens in 6 high schools. In addition, they are conducting interviews with extended family members who are trusted communication partners in teens’ extended families. These survey and interview data will explore how family conversations about dating, relationships, and sex can support teens’ health, delay sex, and reduce teen pregnancy.
“While we don’t yet have all the answers for how extended family conversations can support teens’ health, we do know that many teens see extended family as a resource to learn about sex and relationships,” said Grossman. Parents can discuss with their children’s uncles, aunts, and older siblings how to work together to support teens’ healthy development.