Sexual Risk-Taking Behaviors in Adolescence and Parental Involvement in Prevention
One of the key areas of concern in risk-taking behaviors that are common in adolescence is sexual health. Juntunen and Schwartz (2016) suggest that “there are four aspects of family life that influence an adolescent’s sexual heath: family structure, family connectedness, parental monitoring, and parent’s attitudes about sex (Wight and Fullerton, 2013).” For example, positive parental involvement may help an adolescent decide to abstain from sexual activity until a more mature age. By doing so, it also fosters the belief that they will be willing to receive the appropriate guidance to aid in diminishing the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or emotional anguish due to experiencing early sexual activity and, overall, aid developing safe health practices. Unstable familial factors may also steer the adolescent to make riskier choices in their sexual health such as desiring to fulfill an absence of emotional satisfaction from home life, lack of knowledge of safe-sex practices and risks, and less parental presence throughout their developmental process. This paper examines various factors in parental involvement and attitudes as they relate to an adolescent’s vulnerability to participate in sexual risk behaviors.
Although sexual activity may not be considered a comfortable topic between parents and adolescents, it is apparent that communication is a key factor. It may be difficult for parents to initiate such a conversation or determine the appropriate time to do so. According to one impact study, Sneed (2008) suggests that “it is possible that parents draw on cues from their child’s behavior and circumstances (e.g. having a boyfriend/girlfriend, unsupervised time, physical maturation) in their decision to initiate discussions of sexual behavior.” At this time, the parent may simply give a brief warning about the dangers of sexual behavior, or they may choose to go further in depth regarding the risks and impacts of the behavior during adolescence.
With the discussion of sexual risk-taking behavior, timing is everything when it comes to having a conversation with adolescents. Clawson and Reese-Weber (2003) conducted a study of 214 adolescents that examined the timing of parental-adolescent sexual communication as it relates to the onset of sexual intercourse. The goal was to determine if there were benefits to talking to adolescents about the risks associated with sex before sexual activity begins. The research found that mothers were more apt to have discussions with adolescents earlier on before sexual activity began and this predicted more birth control methods used when sexual activity did take place. Also, the findings indicated that discussions with fathers that were on-time, regardless of the amount of sexual communication, resulted in an older age of first intercourse (Clawson and Reese-Weber, 2003).
Another variable to contend with is the adolescent’s desire for autonomy from the parent that, in turn, may not make them as receptive to hearing what the parent has to say about the dangers of sexual risk-taking behaviors. According to Barber (1992), “there is an assumption that the developing individual is in need of both psychological autonomy and behavioral regulation.” Parents must be cognizant in preventing themselves from appearing too controlling and forceful which could potentially create an opposite reaction with the adolescent that pushes them towards a desire to participate in risk-taking behavior. In a study conducted by Sneed (2008), adolescents between the ages of 11 to 16 were given a questionnaire to determine the adolescents comfort level when discussing sexual risk with parents as related specifically to sexual content and sexual behavior. One of the findings determined that, although adolescents overall felt more comfortable talking to their mother about sex rather than their father, they still felt that certain aspects of their sexual behavior to be considered personal and did not desire to discuss that information with their parents. Also, Sneed (2008) also recognized that “some studies find that parent-adolescent communication is associated with a lower chance that the adolescent is sexually active where other studies have found that parent-adolescent communication is associated with a greater risk that the adolescent is sexually active.” It is likely that the outcome is to some degree dependent on the parenting style in relaying the information to the adolescent as well as the way the adolescent ultimately perceives the tone and objective of the conversation.
Depending on the parenting style, some adolescents may feel that they can discuss sensitive matters with their parents; however, others may not have that comfort level. Parents may use guilt to attempt to keep their adolescent from engaging in sexual behavior but it is not usually effective. As noted by Meschke, Bartholomae, and Zentall (2000), “daughters, who felt controlled via high levels of maternal guilt, were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than their peers who did not perceive their mothers as using guilt to control (Rodgers, 1999).” For example, according to Juntunen and Schwartz (2016), “adolescent girls may fear that their parents will be notified if they attempt to secure birth control.” When the parental-adolescent relationship does not have warmth or closeness, adolescents may lean toward their peers to receive information about sexual behaviors which could lead to dangerously misleading information. Peer influences may not have the knowledge base themselves about the dangers of unprotected sex or may inadvertently encourage the adolescent to participate in an activity that they are not emotionally ready to experience. In referring to the relationship between the adolescent and parent, Meschke et al. (2000) asserts that “warmth and support appear to mediate the association of communication, values, and monitoring with adolescent sexual behavior.”
Socioeconomic status also plays a role in parental involvement of imparting knowledge of sexual risks to adolescents. One study performed by Carlson, McNulty, Bellair, and Watts (2014) found a link to some aspects of adolescent sexual behavior. They found that adolescents from non-intact homes are at a significantly higher risk of an early sexual debut. This could be due in part to the single parent being unable to have a constant presence at home due to long hours at work as well as the stress and time-consuming nature of solely raising other children in the home. Although unintentional, there may be a lack of awareness by the parent that the adolescent is interested or already participating in risky sexual behavior. For example, “with the absence of the father in the home, it is believed that young boys may view the home as an “unprotected nest” and feel free to sexually pursue a girl without fear of the father’s vengeance (Carlson et al. 2014).” In contrast, adolescents from higher socioeconomic areas, tended to have lower experience with early sexual behaviors.
In lower socioeconomic areas, there may also be a different outlook towards early sexual behaviors. According to Smith (1997), “a link between nonbiological family structures and early sexuality has been suggested by research in poor urban areas, where there is an increased acceptance of adolescent childbearing (Abrahamse, 1988; Burton, 1995; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985), as well as many mothers who were themselves teenage parents (Ensminger, 1990).” With this being the case, sexual activity in adolescence may not be looked upon as especially out of the ordinary. Living in an impoverished area, there are fewer examples of stability of family formation, specifically two-parent homes, as well as poor examples of adults without any educational and career oriented goals. According to Carlson et al. (2014), “the lack of opportunity creates a normative context in which early sex, sexual promiscuity, and childbearing may receive greater acceptance than in more advantaged neighborhoods (Anderson, 1999; Edin and Kefalas, 2005; Wilson, 2009).” In contrast, adolescents from higher socioeconomic areas, tended to have lower experience with early sexual behaviors. In a study conducted by Moore, Peterson, and Fursentburg (1986), it was found that parents viewed the assessment of the norms and activities of their neighbors to be consistent with their child rearing goals. The correlation of the quality of the neighborhood in which the child was raised determined that they were less likely to have sex at an early age. Factors considered in this study attributed this to higher parental involvement throughout the course of development, parents being more likely to know most of all of their child’s friends, and more traditional attitudes about marriage and family life.
There is also great value to parental education pertaining to sexual health in adolescents as it is related to risk taking behaviors. Mental health professionals are available to provide guidance for further knowledge and strategies enabling parents to make more informed decisions on how to approach their adolescent. For example, Juntunen et al. (2016) stated that “interventions could increase mother-daughter connectedness, in particular, by increasing feelings of “knowing” each other, with the goals of less misinterpretation, creating a more positive emotional tone, and facilitating more open communication about sex and sexuality.” Parents can seek out various programs targeted at educating adolescents about common risks, for example, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy risks, sexual violence in dating, and contraceptive use. According to an article written by Meschke et al. (2000), “these programs have goals such as increasing comfort levels when discussing sexual issues, increasing adolescents’ and their parents’ knowledge and awareness of sexual issues, and preventing adolescent health risks, such as pregnancy and STIs.”
In conclusion, parental involvement is crucial to an adolescent’s ability to decipher the risks involved with sexual behavior. By providing emotional and educational support to the adolescent, it is possible to deter this risk behavior and prevent sexual experiences that are earlier than needed. It also promotes a healthy lifestyle in adolescents that encourages emotional, mental, and physical safety by delaying sexual experiences plus learning the methods to protect themselves when they do become sexually active. Having open and honest conversations about risk prevention also gives the adolescent a sense of trust with the parent and further enables them to keep a clear line of communication as development continues throughout adolescence.
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