Sep. 11, 2002 WASHINGTON, D.C., and MINNEAPOLIS--Teenagers are less likely to start having sex when their mothers are involved in their lives, have a close relationship with them, and stress the importance of education, according to new findings from the largest survey ever conducted with adolescents in the United States. The results were most consistent among younger teens in the eighth and ninth grades. But simply warning teenagers about the dangers of early sex or telling them that they shouldn't have sex does not stop them from becoming sexually active, the study researchers found. The latest results from the National Longitudinal Survey on Adolescent Health (Add Health) draw from interviews with more than 3,000 pairs of mothers and their teens. The findings were reported today in a monograph by University of Minnesota researchers and in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
When teens perceive that their mothers oppose their having sex, they are less likely to do so, according to the Add Health results. But while most mothers say that they do not want their sons or daughters to be sexually active, their kids don't always get the message. Even when mothers strongly disapprove of their kids having sex, 30 percent of girls and nearly 45 percent of boys do not believe that they do.
"Parents say that they talk until they're blue in the face and their kids still don't listen," said study author Robert Blum, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Adolescent Health and Development Program. "Kids will pay attention to their parents' values and beliefs on sex. But talk alone does not get the message through."
In addition to talking to their children, parents can do many things that make a difference in whether teens start having sex, Blum said. Parents need to know their teens' friends and speak with their friends' parents. Most importantly, teens, and especially younger teens, who feel close to their mothers are less likely to start having sex. Findings from other Add Health research have also shown that teens whose parents value education are less likely to have sex.
The congressionally mandated, federally funded Add Health survey is a comprehensive study of the health-related behaviors of adolescents in the United States. It was directed by investigators from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Today's findings come from two Add Health studies, one published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health and another published earlier in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The monograph incorporates results from both those studies. Preparation of the monograph was supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The Add Health researchers examined self-reports from mothers and their teenagers over the course of a year to gain a better understanding of mother-teen relationships as they affect sexual behavior among teens who said that they had not had sex at the time the study began. During the ensuing year, 11 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls ages 14 to 15 said that they had had sex.
Most mothers said that they talk to their children about sex, including issues such as birth control and the consequences of having sex. Nevertheless, mothers' awareness of their teens' sex lives are frequently inaccurate. When teenagers reported that they had not had sexual intercourse, their mothers were almost always correct in their assessment. But when teens reported that they were having sex, their mothers had only a 50 percent chance of being right in their assessment.
"We need to be more tuned in to what's happening in our children's lives," Blum said. "Otherwise, how can we give them clear, effective messages about how to deal with the choices they will inevitably face?"
The Add Health findings identified a number of factors that are associated with postponement of early sex: For younger teens and older teenage boys, a strong sense of connectedness with their mothers in which the teen feels close to mom and perceives that she is warm and caring makes a difference. This effect was not seen among older teenager girls.
At every age studied, girls whose mothers have higher levels of education are less likely to become sexually active. On the other hand, teens whose mothers are highly religious are no less likely than other teens to start having sex.
Mothers who reported that they frequently talk with the parents of their daughters' friends had daughters who were less likely to have initiated sex over the one-year study period. Again, these findings did not hold true for boys.
The researchers also explored the impact of discussing birth control with teens on subsequent sexual activity. Mothers are nearly twice as likely to say that they recommend a specific form of birth control to their 14- and 15-year-old sons as they are to their daughters.
When mothers of kids in grades 8 through 11 reported having recommended a specific form of birth control, their adolescent children were slightly less likely to perceive that they disapproved of sex. Although other research has shown a slight relationship between the discussion of birth control and teens initiating sex, the study released today did not find that such discussions affected whether teens started having sex.
"The research is a little confusing on whether speaking to teens about birth control encourages them to become sexually active or not," Blum said. "Either way, speaking about birth control doesn't have a major impact on kids' initiation of sexual intercourse. But research does show that when parents talk about contraception with their kids and their kids are having sex, they are more likely to use birth control."
Blum noted that the Add Health findings, like previous research, suggest that mothers have less influence on the timing of first sexual intercourse among their sons than among their daughters. For adolescent boys, other social influences--such as those provided by fathers, siblings, or peers--may outweigh maternal influences on early sex.
For further information on the University of Minnesota Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, visit http://www.allaboutkids.umn.edu.
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