Researchers and providers recognize that adolescents are having sex. Some professionals and parents recognize it as a part of adolescent identity development. This increased acceptance has resulted in sex education that encourages safe sexual practices and preventing adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Despite these efforts and the resulting reductions in negative outcomes associated with adolescent sexual intercourse such as teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STI), billions are still spent dealing with the ramifications of adolescent sexual intercourse. Adolescents below the age of 16 are especially at-risk for these negative outcomes.
Teenagers below the age of 16 are still developing key cognitive abilities and skills including the ability to fully appreciate and understand the risks associated with sexual intercourse. As such, those who initiate sex before the age of 16 are at a higher risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and other negative outcomes. Reports of perceived benefits of sexual intercourse reveal that younger adolescents are seeking sexual relationships for emotional regulation, to maintain a romantic relationship or to increase their sense of worth.
Adolescent sexual initiation is a systemic issue influenced by multiple factors including race, socio-economic status, friends, parents, and teenager biology and personality. With many of these factors existing outside the parameter of parent control, parents can feel very powerless. However, the parent-child relationship can serve a protective role and increase the likelihood of delayed adolescent sexual initiation.
|Parents remain the primary attachment figures in early adolescence
The presumed operating force behind the impact of the parent-adolescent relationship is Attachment Theory. This theory originally created to understand caretaker-infant relationships proposes that self-worth, emotional regulation, and relationship expectations are influenced by the responsiveness of figures like parents. Despite adolescence being a stage of transition towards peer relationships, parents remain the primary attachment figures in early adolescence and influence adolescent outcomes. There are three factors that can increase the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship and decrease the likelihood of sexual initiation before age 16: parent involvement, parent connection, and parental awareness.
1. Parent involvement
Involvement includes engagement in school, day-to-day life, and recreational activities. Increased parent involvement can delay sexual initiation especially in daughters. The emphasis is not about the number of activities, but the quality of the time the parent is engaged with the adolescent. The conversations during this time should not be about information gathering, but about relationship building. When asking about school, it is important for the parent to emphasize things like favorite classes or interesting things learned.
Also, time together should be a cell phone free time for both the adolescent and the parent. Parent(s) can decide a time of the day where all electronic devices are turned off and the family spends time together. Family activities can decrease sexual initiation before age 16.
2. Parental warmth
Parental warmth is a willingness to connect, be emotionally open, supportive, and loving with the adolescent. Parental warmth includes behaviors that allow for emotional expression and support through challenges. By providing the emotional support an adolescent needs from her or his family, the adolescent is less likely to initiate sex to meet these needs. Parents can demonstrate warmth by being willing to listen, and to engage the adolescent on his or her terms. Parents should not give love or affection on a conditional basis, but can give love and affection on a regular basis. Parents should use the affection that best matches their adolescent. If the adolescent appreciates physical touch, then the parent could offer hugs. If the adolescent appreciates words of affirmation, then the parent can offer praise and kind words.
3. Parental awareness
Parental awareness is made up of three interrelated groups of behaviors including parent solicitation, adolescent openness, and parental knowledge. Within this factor, a sweet zone exists that depends on parents and adolescents. Parental behaviors that are too investigative or too permissive in monitoring the adolescent are associated with increases in adolescent sexual initiation. Similarly, adolescents unwilling to disclose information to parents have higher rates of sexual initiation. Thus, an aware parent is one that is willing to ask an adolescent about their activities with an adolescent willing to share this information. One way to encourage adolescent sharing is to be interested in the adolescent’s activities without casting judgment. Utilizing Ken Hardy’s VCR approach, (validate, challenge, request) found in the book Teens who hurt: Breaking the cycle of adolescent violence (2005), may be the best way to accomplish this end. The point of this approach is to validate the strengths of the adolescent before challenging the views of the adolescent.
Sexual initiation before the age of 16 places adolescents at risk for multiple negative outcomes. While parents cannot control all of the factors that influence sexual initiation, they can strengthen the parent-adolescent relationship, which via the tenets of Attachment Theory should delay sexual initiation after age 16. To this end, three parenting behaviors were addressed: parent involvement, parent connection, and parental awareness.
Dan Blocker, MS is currently enrolled in the Medical Family Therapy Doctoral program at East Carolina University. He is passionate about integrated care and it’s potential influence in providing whole-person care. He received his masters from Brigham Young University in Marriage and Family Therapy. His current interests include understanding the protective power of relationships on health outcomes, and technology use.