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Parents Can Help Teens Reduce Sexual Risk-Taking

Many teens experiment with sex. You may want to believe this is not the case for your teen; some parents (and you know who you are!) need to believe that their teen is holding off on sex until after marriage. Statistics suggest, however, that at least half of all teens are engaging in sexual activity, given findings from several surveys recently summarized by the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the Foundation:

  • Half of all high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse (including 39 percent of 9th graders);
  • Only 58 percent of this group used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse; and
  • Over half of all teens between the ages of 12 and 17 (56 percent) expressed personal concern about becoming infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), but more than two-thirds (69 percent) did not know where to get tested for HIV.

What Can a Parent Do?

Communication between parents and teens can have a significant impact on the approach teens take to sexual behavior and condom use. The importance of parental communication regarding safer sexual practices cannot be overemphasized.

Recent research findings offer tips for parents who are tackling this important topic.

Sieving, McNeely, and Blum found that teens who experienced high levels of warmth and closeness with their mothers and perceived that their mothers disapproved of sexual intercourse delayed their sexual initiation. Similarly, Whitaker and Miller found that teens who shared their parents’ views regarding sexual delay and condom use spoke frequently with their parents about such issues as puberty, menstruation, reproduction, birth control, and HIV. The authors advise frequent and open parental communication with teens on sex-related issues to moderate the impact of other teens on sexual risk behavior and condom usage.

How parents talk to their teens can be quite important. Lefkowitz and colleagues discovered that, when mothers dominated conversations about sexuality and AIDS, their teens knew less about AIDS. It may, therefore, be important to allow teens to be more expressive of their ideas and feelings. This will give parents the opportunity to correct distorted perceptions about HIV transmission, thereby potentially reducing risky sexual behavior.

Dittus and Jaccard found that teens who were satisfied with their relationships with their mothers were also more likely to report utilizing birth control during their most recent intercourse, but recommend that mothers who disapprove of teenage intercourse communicate directly with their teens to reduce sexual risk behaviors.

Another study by these same authors found that teens who believe that their mothers approve of their using birth control are twice as likely to engage in sex than those who did not believe they had maternal approval. Jaccard and Dittus emphasize that talking about safer sex is not enough; parents must also discuss the social, emotional, familial, and moral outcomes of early intercourse. Here again, however, those teens reporting a good mother-teen relationship were less likely to engage in intercourse during the study period and those who engaged in intercourse were more likely to utilize birth control.

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Finally, Australians Troth and Peterson examined attitudes and practices related to safer-sex communication with dating partners among heterosexual late teens. Reluctance to negotiate for safer sex was associated with being male, being unassertive, and having a father who avoided conflict with the teen.

Troth and Peterson wisely observe that, while parental guidance regarding safer sexual practices, combined with the promotion of skills in assertion, negotiation, and conflict resolution, would likely improve dating communication among teens, the strategies parents use to resolve everyday conflicts with their late adolescent sons and daughters may lay the basis for safe-sex negotiations in early couple relationships. In particular, mothers and fathers who actively engage in overt disagreement with their sons and daughters, rather than anxiously avoiding conflict, may thereby nurture their children’s confidence in self-assertion and willingness to actively tackle the challenging task of communicating with a sexual partner about the need for condom use. This and other safe-sex strategies may then result from successful saf]-sex communication. (p. 216)


If you would like more information on talking with your teen about HIV and AIDS, the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at the University of California — San Francisco has produced a variety of informative fact sheets in English and Spanish that may be of help. Check out the following titles:

What Are Adolescents’ HIV Prevention Needs?

How Do Parents and Children Talk About HIV?

Should We Teach Only Abstinence in Sexuality Education?

Another excellent resource comes from Mothers’ Voices, “the only national, grassroots, non-profit organization mobilizing mothers as educators and advocates for improved HIV prevention, expanded research, better medical treatment and, ultimately, a cure for AIDS.” Finding Our Voices: Talking With Our Children About Sexuality and AIDS is available by calling 305-347-5467 or by writing to Mothers’ Voices at 150 W. Flagler, Suite 1820, Miami, FL 33130. Individual copies: $5.00.

Information on HIV counseling and testing services in your area may be found through the National HIV Testing Resources website.

Parents Can Help Teens Reduce Sexual Risk-Taking

Abraham Feingold, Psy.D

APA Reference
Feingold, A. (2020). Parents Can Help Teens Reduce Sexual Risk-Taking. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.