The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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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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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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Guest — Nova Biro
Great post! The data on the number of teens having sex by 9th grade is striking. It's great to see the efficacy of a sex education... Read More
Thursday, 23 October 2014 11:00
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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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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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