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Involved Fathers Can Lessen Risky Teen Sex

June 5, 2009

A new study shows that teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such as unprotected intercourse.

According to an MSNBC report, the researchers found that the more attentive the dad “” and the more he knows about his teenage child’s friends “” the bigger the impact on the teen’s sexual behavior.

The study even suggests that while an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s sexual activity, dads have twice the influence.

Rebekah Levine Coley, an associate professor at Boston College and the study’s lead author, suggests there may be something different about the way fathers and adolescents interact.

“It could be because it’s less expected for fathers to be so involved, so it packs more punch when they are.”

Most experts agree that understanding a father’s influence in teen sexual behavior is important, and research shows that one in four American adolescents under the age of 15 has had sexual intercourse and two-thirds have had sex by age 18.

Government statistics show that approximately 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year and about 3 in 10 teenage girls become pregnant at least once before age 20.

Coley and colleagues surveyed 3,206 teens, ages 13 to 18, once a year for four years. During the study, the teens, which all came from two-parent homes, were asked about their sexual behaviors and about their relationships with their parents.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, posed a series of questions about both mothers and fathers, such as “how much does s/he know about whom you are with when you are not at home?”

The researchers also recorded how often the teenagers interacted with their parents in activities such as eating dinner, playing games or attending religious activities.

The report rated parental knowledge of a teen’s friends and activities on a five-point scale.

For dads, each point higher in parental knowledge translated into a 7 percent lower rate of sexual activity in the teen. For the moms, one point higher in knowledge translated to a 3 percent lower rate of teen sexual activity.

A significant 9 percent drop in sexual activity was predicted for every one additional family activity per week.

“The strength of this study is that it helps us identify the children who might be engaging in risky sexual behavior,” said Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University.

Kazdin said fathers vary markedly in their roles as caretakers. “The greater impact of dads might be that moms are more of a constant and when dads are there their impact is magnified,” he added.

He suggested that when dads are involved with families, the stress on the mom is usually reduced because of the diffusion of child-rearing or the support for the mom, which essentially means “dad’s positive effect on mom makes life better for the child,” he explained.

Patrick Tolan, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said the study underscores the importance of parental engagement overall.

“The more time you spend with them, the less time they’re going to be on their own in places where they can get into risky behavior,” Tolan said.

He added that when parents spend time talking to their kids “they’re going to get your values and they’re more likely to think things through rather than acting impulsively.”

However, he warned that simply spending more time together isn’t effective if the home atmosphere isn’t healthy for teenagers.

“Hopefully, the study will encourage both moms and dads to keep trying to connect with their teenage children, even as their kids are pushing them away,” Coley said.

She said that while it’s normal for teens to want to pull away from the family, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage at all.

“It’s extremely important to continue to do things together. And it’s up to parents to set the expectations and standards when it comes to spending time together. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive.”

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