Teens may get lessons in birth control, abstinence, or both at school to help them make more informed decisions about sex, but a new study shows that what parents do — and don't do — at home also can have a big impact on kids' choices when it comes to the birds and the bees.
Looking at a national survey of nearly 5,000 teens, researchers found that spending more quality family time with teens early on (from 14 to 16) and less time being negative or controlling made it less likely the teens would engage in sexually risky behaviors later (from 15 to 19).
Risky behaviors (like frequent or unprotected intercourse and multiple sexual partners) seemed to go up when parenting style was more negative or controlling. Parental negativity was assessed with a series of questions on how often parents criticize their teen's ideas, blame their teen for parents' problems, and/or make plans with their teen but then cancel. However, when families spent regular time together — eating, having fun, participating in a religious activity — teens were less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
Of course, the study doesn't claim that parents' controlling ways actually cause teens to engage in sex. This research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, just shows how a supportive home life and positive parenting can influence teens' choices. And when two-thirds of teens have sex before 19 years old, as the study points out, every bit of knowledge about what may help them make the safest decisions helps.
In another study in the same issue of the same journal, researchers found that regular family meal time alone can reduce teen girls' risk of substance abuse, too.
What This Means to You
Knowing what teens are doing, where they're going, who they're with, and when they'll be back is par for the parenting course of raising adolescents. But when you have a relationship of mutual trust and respect, it can be much less tricky to find a healthy balance between trusting and keeping tabs on your teen.
As a parent it is natural to want to know what your teen is up to, but keep in mind teens desperately crave some sense of control and independence as they grow up. The best way to understand what's going on in your teen's emotional and social life is finding ways to form a positive emotional connection and build and maintain a relationship of trust — in which you trust your child and your child trusts you.
If your teen trusts you and feels like you're a source of support and guidance, your child will be more likely to want to keep you in the loop. That means you'll probably have more automatic access to knowing what's going on — without having to fish for (or snoop for) information about who, what, when, where, and how.
But it's unlikely you'll be invited to hear much about your teen's life if you have a track record of:
- being critical or judgmental
Of course, building and maintaining a relationship requires spending enjoyable time together. The obvious option is the regular family meal, especially dinner. Sitting down to eat together offers the unique opportunity for everyone to stay put in one spot, putting their schedules and obligations aside to just talk, catch up, and enjoy each other's company.
But keep in mind that, even if you have a family meal every night of the week, if mealtimes are characterized by criticism and conflict — or if no one talks — this regular together time may become a dreaded, negative exercise for everyone rather than an opportunity to create and maintain trust and a healthy relationship.
So, whether it's over some food, while driving in the car, as you walk the dog every morning, or during a run together every evening, make sure the time you spend with your teen is true quality time that builds your relationship.
To lay the foundation for a healthy, positive connection whenever or wherever parents and their teens interact, it's wise to try to:
- Let your mood be positive, welcoming, open, and available.
- Make it obvious that you're genuinely glad to have the time together.
- Be available to listen and offer advice, reassurance, suggestions, or perspective without criticism or judgment.
- Show genuine interest — ask about (and let them know you understand) their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
- Demonstrate your unconditional acceptance and love, making sure to offer praise and compliments. This not only reinforces their strengths, but kids with healthy self-esteem are less likely to give in to peer pressure and are often better able to handle relationships.
- Avoid lectures — they'll tune you out, for sure.
- Have faith in their ability to make good decisions — and be there to help them think through the tough ones. Rather than telling teens what they should do, offer suggestions then help them consider the outcomes and consequences (what will happen, how they might feel, how others might feel or react, etc.).
When it comes to the heavy topics — like sex, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco — share and explain what you think, again without the unnecessary preaching. Just let them know where you stand, what your values are, and why. And don't wait until they're already facing difficult situations. Try to establish an ongoing dialogue about sexual development and feelings, substance abuse, decision-making, and values as children grow — instead of waiting to have a talk in one big overwhelming summit.
When you treat kids — and their opinions and feelings — with respect, chances are they'll be more apt to give you and your own thoughts and values the same courtesy.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Source: "Using Sibling Differences to Estimate Effects of Parenting on Adolescent Sexual Risk Behaviors" and "Family Meals and Substance Use: Is There a Long-Term Protective Association?," Journal of Adolescent Health, August 2008.