When kids talk to their parents about sex, safer sex behavior happens

During our recent trip to Disney World, while waiting to be seated for dinner, my boys spontaneously started asking my wife about sex. I happened to be sitting outside with my daughter; my wife was inside with my sons and her parents. The questions quickly got detailed, to the (reported) mortification of my in-laws and others standing nearby.

I know all of this, because my sons then appeared (sent out by their mother) to pepper me with the same questions. I answered most of them simply and honestly, drawing the line only when they got too personal.

Some of our friends were a bit shocked that we found this so funny, and that we talk about sex so openly with our kids. They would be horrified, I imagine, to know of some of the questions my daughter has asked, and which I’ve answered. But Aimee and I are on the same page here. We’re going to be a resource, and we’re going to have this dialogue with our kids, over and over again.

Data support this attitude. From JAMA Pediatrics “Parent-Adolescent Sexual Communication and Adolescent Safer Sex Behavior“:

Importance: Parent-adolescent sexual communication has received considerable attention as a factor that can positively affect safer sex behavior among youth; however, the evidence linking such communication to youth contraceptive and condom use has not been empirically synthesized.

Objectives: To examine the effect of parent-adolescent sexual communication on safer sex behavior among youth and explore potential moderators of this association.

Data Sources: A systematic search of studies published from database inception through June 30, 2014, using the MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Communication & Mass Media Complete databases and relevant review articles yielded 5098 studies, of which 52 studies with 25 314 adolescents met the study eligibility criteria. Analysis was conducted from July 1, 2014, to July 27, 2015.

Study Selection: Studies were included if they sampled adolescents (mean sample age ≤18 years), included an adolescent report of sexual communication with one or both parents, measured safer sex behavior, and were published in English.

Data Extraction and Synthesis: Correlation coefficients (r) and 95% CIs were computed from studies and meta-analyzed using random-effects models.

Main Outcomes and Measures: Safer sex behavior, including use of contraceptives or condoms.

This was a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the relationship between parent-adolescent communication about sex and safer sexual behavior. They found 52 articles with more than 25,000 adolescents participating.

When parents had better communication about sex with their kids, their kids practice safer sex. Communication had more of an effect with girls than boys. It also was more effective when it came from the mother than the father.

Now for the caveats. The overall effect was statistically significant, but small. It was also greater for mothers; not so much for fathers. But the authors posit that this is because fathers tend to be much less expressive, open, and able to share. So that may mean that fathers have potential, but aren’t using it as much as mothers.

But, once again, let’s weigh the benefits and harms.  The research shows that communication is associated with benefits, and it hints towards the idea that there’s a dose response (parents who communicate more see more results). I see no reason for Aimee and I to change our behavior.


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