Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 788–801 | Cite as

Perceptions of Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior Among Mothers Living With and Without HIV: Does Dyadic Sex Communication Matter?

  • Stephanie L. Marhefka
  • Claude Ann Mellins
  • Elizabeth Brackis-Cott
  • Curtis Dolezal
  • Anke A. Ehrhardt
Original Paper


Previous studies suggest that mothers can help adolescents make responsible sexual decisions by talking with them about sexual health. Yet, it is not clear how and when mothers make decisions about talking with their adolescents about sex. We sought to determine: (1) the accuracy of mothers’ and adolescents’ predictions of adolescents’ age of sexual debut; and (2) if mothers’ beliefs about their adolescents’ sexual behavior affected the frequency of mother–adolescent communication about sexual topics and, in turn, if mother–adolescent communication about sexual topics affected mothers’ accuracy in predicting adolescents’ current and future sexual behavior. Participants were 129 urban, ethnic minority HIV-negative youth (52% male and 48% female; ages 10–14 years at baseline; ages 13–19 years at follow-up) and their mothers; 47% of mothers were HIV-positive. Most mothers and adolescents predicted poorly when adolescents would sexually debut. At baseline, mothers’ communication with their early adolescents about sexual topics was not significantly associated with mothers’ assessments of their early adolescents’ future sexual behavior. At follow-up, mothers were more likely to talk with their adolescents about HIV prevention and birth control if they believed that their adolescents had sexually debuted, though these effects were attenuated by baseline levels of communication. Only one effect was found for adolescents’ gender: mothers reported greater communication about sex with daughters. Studies are needed to determine how mothers make decisions about talking with their adolescents about sex, as well as to examine to what extent and in what instances mothers can reduce their adolescents’ sexual risk behavior by providing comprehensive, developmentally appropriate sex education well before adolescents are likely to debut.


Parent–child relations Sexual behavior Sexual activity Adolescents HIV 


  1. Bogart, L. M., Cecil, H., Wagstaff, D. A., Pinkerton, S. D., & Abramson, P. R. (2000). Is it “sex”?: College students’ interpretations of sexual behavior terminology. Journal of Sex Research, 37, 108–116.Google Scholar
  2. Botvin, G. J., Baker, E., Dusenbury, L., Tortu, S., & Botvin, E. M. (1990). Preventing adolescent drug abuse through a multimodal cognitive-behavioral approach: Results of a 3-year study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 58, 437–446.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). Trends in reportable sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, 2004: National surveillance data for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Retrieved August 25, 2006, from
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2006). Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2005. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 55(SS-5), 1–108.Google Scholar
  5. Coreil, J., & Parcel, G. S. (1983). Sociocultural determinants of parental involvement in sex education. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 9(2), 22–25.Google Scholar
  6. Crawford, I., Thomas, S., & Zoller, D. (1993). Communication and level of AIDS knowledge among homeless African-American mothers and their children. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 4(4), 37–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. DiIorio, C., Kelley, M., & Hockenberry-Eaton, M. (1999). Communication about sexual issues: Mothers, fathers, and friends. Journal of Adolescent Health, 24, 181–189.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DiIorio, C., Pluhar, E., & Belcher, L. (2003). Parent–child communication about sexuality: A review of the literature from 1980–2002. Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention & Education for Adolescents & Children, 5, 7–32.Google Scholar
  9. DiIorio, C., Resnicow, K., Dudley, W. N., Thomas, S., Wang, D. T., Van-Marter, D. F., et al. (2000). Social cognitive factors associated with mother–adolescent communication about sex. Journal of Health Communication, 5, 41–51.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dittus, P. J., & Jaccard, J. (2000). Adolescents’ perceptions of maternal disapproval of sex: Relationship to sexual outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 26, 268–278.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dittus, P. J., Jaccard, J., & Gordon, V. V. (1999). Direct and nondirect communication of maternal beliefs to adolescents: Adolescent motivations for premarital sexual activity. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, 1927–1963.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Downie, J., & Coates, R. (1999). The impact of gender on parent–child sexuality communication: Has anything changed? Sexual & Marital Therapy, 14, 109–121.Google Scholar
  13. Dugan, T. M., & Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L. (2003). A training program for sex research interviewers. In D. di Mauro, G. Herdt, & R. Parker (Eds.), Handbook of sexuality research training initiatives (pp. 80–92). New York: Social Science Research Council.Google Scholar
  14. Dutra, R., Miller, K., & Forehand, R. (1999). The process and content of sexual communication with adolescents in two-parent families: Associations with risk-taking behavior. AIDS and Behavior, 3, 59–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fisher, T. D. (1986). An exploratory study of parent–child communication about sex and the attitudes of early, middle, and late adolescents. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 147, 543–557.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Forste, R., & Haas, D. W. (2002). The transition of adolescent males to first sexual intercourse: Anticipated or delayed? Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 34, 184–190.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fox, G. L., & Inazu, J. K. (1980). Mother–daughter communication about sex. Family Relations, 29, 347–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hepburn, E. H. (1983). A three-level model of parent–daughter communication about sexual topics. Adolescence, 18, 523–534.Google Scholar
  19. Holtzman, D., & Rubinson, R. (1995). Parent and peer communication effects on AIDS-related behavior among U.S. high school students. Family Planning Perspectives, 27, 235–240, 268.Google Scholar
  20. Jaccard, J., Dittus, P. J., & Gordon, V. V. (1996). Maternal correlates of adolescent sexual and contraceptive behavior. Family Planning Perspectives, 28, 159–165, 185.Google Scholar
  21. Jaccard, J., Dittus, P. J., & Gordon, V. V. (1998). Parent–adolescent congruency in reports of adolescent sexual behavior and in communications about sexual behavior. Child Development, 69, 247–261.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Jaccard, J., Dittus, P. J., & Gordon, V. V. (2000). Parent–teen communication about premarital sex: Factors associated with the extent of communication. Journal of Adolescent Research, 15, 187–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jaccard, J., Dodge, T., & Gordon, V. V. (2002). Parent–adolescent communication about sex and birth control: A conceptual framework. In S. Feldman & D. A. Roshenthal (Eds.), Talking sexuality: Parent–adolescent communication (pp. 9–41). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  24. Kalichman, S. C., Kelly, J. A., & Stevenson, L. Y. (1997). Priming effects of HIV risk assessments on related perceptions and behavior: An experimental field study. AIDS and Behavior, 1, 3–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kempner, M. E. (2000). Sexuality education is debated as restrictive programs gain popularity. SIECUS Report, 28(6), 3–19.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Krauss, B. J., & Goldsamt, L. (1997). Influence of parents’ interactive training on children’s HIV risk intentions. Paper presented at the NIMH Role of the Family in Preventing and Adapting to HIV/AIDS Conference, Baltimore, MD.Google Scholar
  27. Landry, D. J., Darroch, J. E., Singh, S., & Higgins, J. (2003). Factors associated with the content of sex education in U.S. public secondary schools. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35(6), 261–269.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Landry, D. J., Kaeser, L., & Richards, C. L. (1999). Abstinence promotion and the provision of information about contraception in public school district sexuality education policies. Family Planning Perspectives, 31, 280–286.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lefkowitz, E. S. (2002). Beyond the yes-no question: Measuring parent–adolescent communication about sex: A conceptual framework. In S. S. Feldman & D. A. Rosenthal (Eds.), Talking sexuality: Parent–adolescent communication (pp. 43–56). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  30. Lefkowitz, E. S., Romo, L., Corona, R., Au, T. K., & Sigman, M. (2000). How Latino-American and European-American adolescents discuss conflicts, sexuality, and AIDS with their mothers. Developmental Psychology, 36, 315–325.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lefkowitz, E. S., & Stoppa, T. M. (2006). Positive sexual communication and socialization in the parent–adolescent context. New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development, 112(Summer), 39–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Leland, N. L., & Barth, R. P. (1993). Characteristics of adolescents who have attempted to avoid HIV and who have communicated with parents about sex. Journal of Adolescent Health, 8, 58–76.Google Scholar
  33. Longmore, M. A. (1998). Symbolic interactionism and the study of sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 44–58.Google Scholar
  34. Mellins, C. A., Brackis-Cott, E., Dolezal, C., & Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L. (2005). Behavioral risk in early adolescents with HIV+ mothers. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 342–351.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mellins, C. A., Dolezal, C., Brackis-Cott, E., Nicholson, O., & Meyer-Bahlburg, H. (2006). Predicting the onset of sexual and drug risk behavior in HIV-negative youth with HIV-positive mothers: The role of family and psychosocial factors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 265–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Menard, S. (1991). Longitudinal research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  37. Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., Ehrhardt, A. A., Exner, T. M., Gruen, R. S., & Dugan, T. (1995). Sexual risk behavior assessment schedule: Youth, 1995 edition. New York: Columbia University.Google Scholar
  38. Miller, K. S., Levin, M. L., Whitaker, D. J., & Xu, X. (1998). Patterns of condom use among adolescents: The impact of mother–adolescent communication. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 1542–1544.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Miller, K. S., & Whitaker, D. J. (2001). Predictors of mother–adolescent discussions about condoms: Implications for providers who serve youth. Pediatrics, 108, 28–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Moore, M. R., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (2001). Sexual intercourse and pregnancy among African American girls in high-poverty neighborhoods: The role of family and perceived community environment. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 653, 1146–1157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2001). With one voice: American’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.Google Scholar
  42. Newcomer, S. E., & Udry, J. R. (1984). Mother’s influence on the sexual behavior of their teenage children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 46, 477–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. O’Sullivan, L., Dolezal, C., Brackis-Cott, E., Traeger, L., & Mellins, C. A. (2005). Communication about HIV and risk behaviors among mothers living with HIV and their early adolescent children. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25, 148–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. O’Sullivan, L. F., Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., & Wasserman, G. (2000). Reactions of inner-city boys and their mothers to research interviews about sex. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 12, 81–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. O’Sullivan, L., Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., & Watkins, B. X. (2001). Mother–daughter communication about sex among urban African-American and Latino families. Journal of Adolescent Research, 16, 269–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pick, S., & Palos, P. A. (1995). Impact of the family on the sex lives of adolescents. Adolescence, 30, 667–675.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Raffaelli, M., Bogenschneider, K., & Flood, M. F. (1998). Parent–teen communication about sexual topics. Journal of Family Issues, 19, 315–333.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rangel, M. C., Gavin, L., Reed, C., Fowler, M. G., & Lee, L. M. (2006). Epidemiology of HIV and AIDS among adolescents and young adults in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 156–163.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Romer, D., Stanton, B., Galbraith, J., Fiegelman, S., Black, M., & Li, X. (1999). Parental influence on adolescent sexual behavior in high-poverty settings. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 153, 1055–1062.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Rosenthal, D. A., & Feldman, S. S. (1999). The importance of importance: Adolescents’ perceptions of parental communication about sexuality. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 835–851.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rosenthal, D. A., Feldman, S. S., & Edwards, D. (1998). Mum’s the word: Mother’s perspectives on communication about sexuality with adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 727–743.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sanders, S. A., & Reinisch, J. M. (1999). Would you say you “had sex” if...? Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 275–277.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Santelli, J., Ott, M. A., Lyon, M., Rogers, J., Summers, D., & Sheifler, R. (2006). Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. based policies and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38, 72–81.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Schrimshaw, E. W., Rosario, M., Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F. L., & Scharf-Matlick, A. A. (2006). Test–retest reliability of self-reported sexual behavior, sexual orientation, and psychosexual milestones among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 225–234.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Udry, J. R., & Campbell, B. C. (1994). Getting started on sexual behavior. In A. S. Rossi (Ed.), Sexuality across the life course (pp. 187–207). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  56. Upchurch, D. M., Levy-Storms, L., Sucoff, C. A., & Aneshensel, C. S. (1998). Gender and ethnic differences in the timing of first sexual intercourse. Family Planning Perspectives, 30, 121–127.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Upchurch, D. M., Lillard, L. A., Aneshensel, C. S., & Fang Li, N. (2002). Inconsistencies in reporting the occurrence and timing of first intercourse among adolescents. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 197–206.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Weinhardt, L. S., Carey, K. B., & Carey, M. P. (2000). HIV risk sensitization following a detailed sexual behavior interview: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 393–398.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Whitaker, D. J., Miller, K. S., & Clark, L. F. (2000). Reconceptualizing adolescent sexual behavior: Beyond did they or didn’t they? Family Planning Perspectives, 32, 111–117.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Whitaker, D. J., Miller, K. S., May, D. C., & Levin, M. L. (1999). Teenage partners’ communication about sexual risk and condom use: The importance of parent–teenage discussions. Family Planning Perspectives, 31, 117–121.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Yang, H., Stanton, B., Cottrel, L., Kaljee, L., Galbraith, J., & Li, X., et al. (2006). Parental awareness of adolescent risk involvement: Implications of overestimates and underestimates. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 353–361.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephanie L. Marhefka
    • 1
    • 2
  • Claude Ann Mellins
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Brackis-Cott
    • 1
  • Curtis Dolezal
    • 1
  • Anke A. Ehrhardt
    • 1
  1. 1.HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, New York State Psychiatric InstituteColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Community and Family Health, College of Public HealthUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA

Personalised recommendations