Skip to main content


Log in

Parents’ Communication with Adolescents About Sexual Behavior: A Missed Opportunity for Prevention?

  • Original Paper
  • Published:
Journal of Youth and Adolescence Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Parents may wait to talk to their teens about sexuality until they believe their child is in a romantic relationship. To examine this, telephone surveys were conducted with 1069 parents of adolescents. Measures assessed parents’ perception of teens’ romantic involvement and parent-child communication about several sexuality topics. Multivariable regression models determined the odds of talking about each topic among parents who reported their teen had been in a romantic relationship compared to those who did not. Most parents reported talking at least a moderate amount about some sex-related topic. Parents who believed their teen had been romantically involved were more likely to have discussed most of the topics examined here (ORs=1.64 – 2.56). For some topics, associations were more pronounced among parents of younger teens. Findings suggest that parents may miss important opportunities to influence behavior, and should initiate conversations about sexuality before they believe their child to be romantically involved.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Baldwin SE, Baranoski MV (1990) Family interactions and sex education in the home. Adolescence 25:573–582

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Blum RW, Geer L, Hutton L, McKay C, Resnick MD, Rosenwinkel K, Song Y (1988) The Minnesota adolescent health survey—Implications for physicians. Minn Med 71:143–149

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bronfenbrenner U (1977) Toward an experimental ecology of human development. Am Psych 32:513–531

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bright Futures (Accessed November 30, 2004) Available at:

  • Bruckner H, Bearman P (2003) Dating behavior and sexual activity of young adolescents: Analyses of the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. In: Albert B, Brown S, Flanigan C (eds) 14 and Younger: The sexual behavior of young adolescents. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington, D.C. pp 31–56

  • Cutler EM, Bateman MD, Wollan PC, Simmons PS (1999) Parental knowledge and attitudes of Minnesota laws concerning adolescent medical care. Pediatrics 103:582–587

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Department of Adolescent Health, American Medical Association (1992) Guidelines for adolescent preventive services. American Medical Association. Chicago

  • Dillman DA, et al. (Accessed January, 2003) Response rate and measurement differences in mixed mode surveys: using mail, telephone, interactive voice response and the internet. Draft paper. Available at:

  • DiIorio C, Kelley M, Hockenberry-Eaton M (1999) Communication about sexual issues: mothers, fathers and friends. J Adolesc Health 24:181–189

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Dittus PJ, Jaccard J (2000) Adolescents’ perceptions of maternal disapproval of sex: relationship to sexual outcomes. J Adolesc Health 26:268–278

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Dutra R, Miller KS, Forehand R (1999) The process and content of sexual communication with adolescents in two-parent families: Associations with sexual risk-taking behaviors. AIDS and Behav 3:59–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eisenberg ME, Bearinger LH, Sieving R, Swain C, Resnick MD (2004) Parents’ beliefs about condoms and oral contraceptives: Are they medically accurate? Perspect Sex Repro Health 36(2):50–57

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eisenberg ME, Swain C, Sieving R, Bearinger LH, Resnick MD (2005) Parental notification laws for minors’ access to contraception—What do parents say? Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 159:120–125

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Furman W, Brown BB, Feiring C (1999) The development of romantic relationships in adolescence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

    Google Scholar 

  • Furstenberg FF, Jr, Herceg-Baron R, Shea J, Webb D (1984) Family communication and teenagers’ contraceptive use. Fam Plann Perspect 16(4):163–170

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hellerstedt WL, Smith AE, Shew ML, Resnick MD (2000) Perceived knowledge and training needs in adolescent pregnancy prevention: Results from a multidisciplinary survey. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 154:679–684

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Holtzman D, Rubinson R (1995) Parent and peer communication effects on AIDS-related behavior among U.S. high school students. Fam Plann Perspect 27:235–240, 268

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Inazu JK, Fox GL. (1980) Maternal influence on the sexual behavior of teen-age daughters. J Fam Issues 1(1):81–102

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard J, Dittus P, Litardo H (1998a) Parent-adolescent communication about sex and birth control: Implications for parent-based interventions to reduce unintended adolescent pregnancy. In: Miller W, Severy L (eds) Advances in population research: Psychological perspectives. Kingsley, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard J, Dittus PJ (2000) Adolescent perceptions of maternal approval of birth control and sexual risk behavior. Am J Public Health 90:1426–1430

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard J, Dittus PJ, Gordon VV (1998b) Parent-adolescent congruency in reports of adolescent sexual behavior and in communications about sexual behavior. Child Dev 69(1):247–261

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard J, Dittus PJ, Gordon VV (1996) Maternal correlates of adolescent sexual and contraceptive behavior. Fam Plann Perspect 28:159–165, 185

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Jaccard J, Dodge T, Dittus P (2002) Parent-adolescent communication and birth control: a conceptual framework. New Directions for Child & Adolesc Deve 97:9–41

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Karofsky PS, Zeng L, Kosorok MR (2000) Relationship between adolescent-parental communication and initiation of first intercourse by adolescents. J Adolesc Health 28:41–45

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kirby D (1999) Sexuality and sex education at home and school. Adolesc Med: State of the Art Rev 10(2):195–209

    Google Scholar 

  • Kirby D, Miller BC (2002) Interventions designed to promote parent-teen communication about sexuality. New Directions for Child & Adolesc Dev 97:93–110

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kosmin B, Mayer E, Keysar A (Accessed May, 2003) American religious identification survey. 2001. Available at:

  • Lefkowitz ES (2002) Beyond the yes-no question: measuring parent-adolescent communication about sex. New Directions for Child & Adolesc Dev 97:43–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McLeroy KR, Bibeau D, Stechler A, Glanz K (1988) An ecological perspective on health promotion programs. Health Educ Q 15(4):351–377

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • McNeely C, Shew ML, Beuhring T, Sieving R, Miller BC, Blum RW (2002) Mothers’ influence on the timing of first sex among 14- and 15-year olds. J Adolesc Health 31:256–265

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Miller B, Norton M, Curtis T, et al. (1997) The timing of sexual intercourse among adolescents: Family, peer, and other antecedents. Youth & Society 29:54–83

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller BC (1998) Families matter: A Research synthesis of family influences on adolescent pregnancy. Washington, D.C., The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

  • Miller KS, Levin ML, Whitaker DJ, Xu X (1998) Patterns of condom use among adolescents: the impact of mother-adolescent communication. Am J Public Health 88(10):1542–1544

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Miller KS, Whitaker DJ (2001) Predictors of mother—adolescent discussions about condoms: implications for providers who serve youth. Pediatrics 108(2): full/108/2/e28

  • Mueller KE, Powers WG (1990) Parent-child sexual discussion: Perceived communicator style and subsequent behavior. Adolescence 25:469–482

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Parents (Accessed February 2003) Available at: parent/default.asp

  • Newcomber SF, Udry JR (1985) Parent-child communication and adolescent sexual behavior. Fam Plann Perspect 17(4):169–174

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Resnick MD, Harris LJ, Blum RW (1993) The impact of caring and connectedness on adolescent health and well-being. J Paediatr Child Health 29s:1s–9s

    Google Scholar 

  • Resnick MD, Bearman PS, Blum RW, Bauman KE, Harris KM, Jones J, Tabor J, Beuhring T, Sieving R, Shew M, Ireland M, Bearinger L, Udry JR (1997) Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. JAMA 278(10):823–832

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Rock EM, Simmons PS (2003) Physician knowledge and attitudes of Minnesota laws concerning adolescent health care. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol 16(2):101–108

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Romer D, Stanton B, Galbraith J, Feigelman S, Black MM, Li X (1999) Parental influence in adolescent sexual behavior in high-poverty settings. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 53:1055–1062

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenthal DA, Feldman SS, Edwards D (1998) Mum’s the word: mothers’ perspectives on communication about sexuality with adolescents. J Adolesc 2:727–743

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sieving RE, Beuhring T, Resnick MD, Bearinger LH, Shew M, Ireland M, Blum RW. (2001) Development of adolescent self-report measures from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. J Adolesc Health 28(1):73–81

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sieving RE, McNeely CS, Blum RW (2000) Maternal expectations, mother-child connectedness, and adolescent sexual debut. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 154:809–816

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Troth A, Peterson CC (2000) Factors predicting safe-sex talk and condom use in early sexual relationships. Health Commun 12(2):195–218

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Widmer ED (1997) Influence of older siblings in initiation of sexual intercourse. J Marriage and the Fam 59:928–938

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Sources of Support: (1) grant #U48/CCU513331, (Prevention Research Center, PI: MD Resnick), from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) Project T30 MC 00021-11 0 (Center for Adolescent Nursing, Director: LH Bearinger) from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (Title V, Social Security Act), Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Resources; and (3) grant #FPTPA50031 (Region V Family Planning Program, Director: C Swain), Title X Family Planning Program.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marla E. Eisenberg.

Additional information

Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota. She received her Sc.D. in Social Epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health. Her major research interests are the social influences on high risk health behaviors among adolescents.

Associate Professor with the School of Nursing and the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. She received her Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on on family, peer, and individual-level influences on adolescents’ sexual behaviors and violence involvement. She is also Deputy Director of the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center, which conducts research and disseminates actionable knowledge that promotes healthy youth development and reduces health disparities among young people.

Professor and Director of the Center for Adolescent Nursing at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her major research interests focus on understanding key risk and protective factors in adolescence, particularly among vulnerable populations of youth.

President of Midwestern Professional Educational and Research Services, Inc., a DHHS funded non-profit agency serving as a Title X Regional Training Center. She received her Masters in Psychology from Miami University and worked for 12 years in flight psychophysiology before moving into public health. Her primary research interests center on identifying barriers that limit adolescent and low income population’s access to publicly funded reproductive health care services.

Professor and Director of the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center at the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics. He received his Ph.D. in Health Services Research and Policy from the University of Minnesota. His major research interests are understanding risk and protective factors in the lives of young people, particularly around issues of reproductive health, pregnancy, and violence.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Eisenberg, M.E., Sieving, R.E., Bearinger, L.H. et al. Parents’ Communication with Adolescents About Sexual Behavior: A Missed Opportunity for Prevention?. J Youth Adolescence 35, 893–902 (2006).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: