An Article Review: "We Talked About Sex." "No, We Didn't": Exploring Adolescent and Parent Agreement About Sexuality Communication

By Samantha Lowe

Adolescent perceptions of parental interactions do not get as much attention as they deserve, gone are the days of the common "because I said so" parent reasoning, it is now time for open, honest, and factual conversations about sex and contraception.  Speaking with your adolescents about sexual encounters is important, currently over 40% of adolescents report they had sex before any conversation with their parents about contraception  (Grossman et al., 2017).  Research has shown that having a conversation with your child in early adolescence can post-pone sexual activity along with reducing risky sexual behaviors (Grossman et al., 2017). 

Recently, an article was published in November of 2017, using qualitative and quantitative data to compare thoughts and feeling of 27 parent and adolescent dyads in relation to a discussion about sexual topics.  Agreement between the dyad was analyzed and then given a low, medium, or high agreement rating. Adolescents and parents who had high agreement were more likely to report positive parental approaches to sexuality communication and awareness of parental perspectives (Grossman et al., 2017). 

What were the authors trying to get them to agree on? Basically… if the conversation happened. Nine topics were outlined, and adolescents and parents were presented with open and closed ended questions, these topics included; puberty, the biology of pregnancy, when it's okay to date, avoiding STI's, condoms, when it is okay to have sex, religious beliefs and sex, adolescent pregnancy, and LGBTQ issues (Grossman et al., 2017). Interview questions also addressed perceptions of parental messages about sex, comfort talking with a parent about sex, and perceptions of parental rules for dating and sexual behavior (Grossman et al., 2017). Dyads were divided into high-(6-9), medium-(3-5), and low-(0-2) match groups based on agreement of the nine outlined topics and the adolescents’ perceptions of the quality of the conversation (Grossman et al., 2017).

Demographics: Dyads consisted mostly of mothers and adolescent children, keeping the psychological trend of the "not likely to participate in the study" father alive. Out of 27 dyads, 25 included the mother while the remaining 2 included the father. Twelve dyads (44%) included adolescent females, with an adolescent mean age of 12 years, 19% of the adolescents reported already having sexual intercourse.  52% of dyads self-reported as African American, reporting a moderate level of religious importance  (Grossman et al., 2017).

While dyads were analyzed results focused on the adolescents perception of the conversation, it is the adolescents perceptions, not the parents, that are going to shape their experiences and behaviors (Grossman et al., 2017). Even if a parent believes they are communicating effectively, the perception of the adolescent can be completely different. Focusing on the adolescents perception is key, if they do not feel like the communication was effective then the positive consequences from the discussion (delayed sexual involvement and lowered risky sexual behaviors) could never manifest.

Results: No dyad reported agreement of having discussed all nice topics, the highest level of dyad agreement on if a topic was discussed was for puberty (74%), followed by dating and LGBTQ issues (56%). Lower levels of agreement included religious beliefs about sex (15%), readiness for sex and teen pregnancy (33%) (Grossman et al., 2017). The fact that 56% of dyads had discussed LBTQ issues and only 15% had discussed religious beliefs about sex was amazingly shocking to me, I would like to see how these results changed in an a strictly Appalachian sample. I would predict that the numbers would be reversed, with more conversations about religion and less about LGBTQ culture.  Based off the research I conducted in graduate school I suspect this percentage would be MUCH lower as about 25% of my Appalachian participants did not know how to identify their own sexuality and struggled with the difference between "Asexual" and "Heterosexual". Further research needs to be done within specific sub-populations.

Three main themes became apparent from adolescent responses related to their experience with sexuality communication with their parent: Comfort with sexuality communication, Responses to parents viewpoints, and Awareness of parental perspectives (Grossman et al., 2017). Results when on to show that dyads in the high match group expressed a more positive parental approach, agreed with their parents viewpoints, and could explain why their parent held their viewpoints. Parents were open, honest, and practiced good listening skills (Grossman et al., 2017).

Adolescent quotes from the high match group included:

  • "My Mom is just like all out and makes sure I know everything"
  • "I am very comfortable because she has all the information"
  • "She tells me what happened and why it happened, because it happened to her"
  • "I think it is smart of her, she doesn’t want me to get the wrong information"
  • "My Mom is overreactive because she got pregnant at a young age and she does not want me to do the same and miss out on educational opportunities"

Low match groups exhibited poor listening skills and adolescents felt like parents did not give adolescents enough credit for their understanding of the topic, and their uncomfortableness of speaking about the topic was obvious to the adolescent (Grossman et al., 2017).

Low match adolescent quotes included:

  • "Because she makes jokes about everything"
  • "They talk about it like it is a bad word, like you shouldn’t talk about it and you shouldn’t be doing it"
  • "They talked to me in kiddie talk and say it like I am a little kid"
  • "I don’t think they know about STI's, they only know about the simple ones"
  • "My Mom doesn’t know much about condoms because I don’t think she has used one"
  • "They are too overprotective, I don’t think that they know that I do understand and want to make the right decision"

Topics of dating and puberty seemed to be easier for parents to discuss with their adolescents while topics of pregnancy and contraception seemed to cause some uneasiness in the parent (Grossman et al., 2017). Results in this study show that uncomfortableness, inability to explain why they hold their views and ineffective listening on the parents’ end can doom the conversation. These findings support sex education courses that include both parents and adolescents with in the middle school setting. These programs can provide support for topics of potential discomfort and encourage the parent to be open despite their hesitancies. These courses also open the floor for more than one conversation about sexual topics, as following up about what was heard in the conversation can reduce gaps in communication (Grossman et al., 2017).

The study needs to be replicated with a larger N than 27 so the results are more generalizable. It would be interesting to compare cross cultural agreement and topics between dyads. From previous research we understand some cultural differences, for example in the Netherlands romance and consent are two highly discussed topics between adolescent and parent dyads, which is a stark difference from the typical abstinence, STI, and pregnancy topics covered in American dyads (Grossman et al., 2017).)

The sample was a convenience sample which comes with its own problems, but I don’t believe they need to be discussed. However dyads were thrown out of the study when the parental figure identified as another adult family member. In my opinion, this should not have made a difference as they are still the person who is likely to have this conversation with the adolescent. Future studies should include these dyads as modern families are not likely fit the cookie-cutter mold of the typical nuclear family.

Citations:

Grossman, J., Sarwar, P., Richer, A. and Erkut, S. (2017). “We Talked About Sex.” “No, We Didn't”: Exploring Adolescent and Parent Agreement About Sexuality Communication. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 12(4), pp.343-357.