More family meals mean less risky sex for teens

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Parents who don’t want their teens to engage in risky sexual behavior should make family time a priority, a new study suggests.

Adolescents who took part in family activities more often had sex less frequently, less unprotected sex, and fewer sex partners, Dr. Rebekah Levine Coley of Boston College and her colleagues found.

Most research on parenting and teen sexual behavior has simply looked at whether or not a teen has had sex, not the degree of sexual risk he or she takes, Coley noted in an interview with Reuters Health. But given that two out of three U.S. teens have sex before they turn 19, more specific information would provide a better understanding of the risks involved, Coley and her team point out in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

To investigate, as well as to better define whether parental qualities influence a child’s sexual behavior rather than vice versa, Coley and her team used increasingly stringent statistical techniques to analyze the results of a survey of 4,950 U.S. teens, 1,058 of whom were siblings. The adolescents were 12 to 16 years old when the study began, and completed the survey every year for 3 years.

By comparing parenting quality and sexual behavior for siblings raised in the same household, Coley noted, it is possible to tease out potential cause-and-effect relationships.

The more times a week that an adolescent reported having dinner with their family, “doing something religious” as a family, or having fun with their family, the less likely he or she was to engage in risky sexual behavior, the researchers found.

However, having a parent who used “negative and psychologically controlling” behavior increased the likelihood that a teen would be having risky sex. This includes “criticizing the ideas of the adolescents, controlling and directing what they think and how they feel,” Coley explained.

“Negative and psychologically controlling parenting behaviors may inhibit adolescents’ development of self-efficacy and identity, interfere with mature and responsible decision making skills, and affect the development of healthy relationships, in turn leading to an elevated likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors,” the researchers suggest.

On the other hand, they add, family activities are “centrally important supports for children, providing opportunities for emotional warmth, communication, and transmission of values and beliefs.”

The findings make it clear, Coley said, that “what parents do with their adolescents really matters.”

SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, August 2008.