Parental guidance

By SAMANTHA CRITCHELL Associated Press Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) When it comes to adolescents attitudes toward sex, movies matter. And so does locker-room chatter. But two recent studies also note the influence parents have over their children even if it is sometimes indirect.

The effect also seems to be much more pronounced if the adolescent is a girl.

If adolescent girls perceive their parents disapproval of teenage sex, she is less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease six years later, according to the study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Dr. Carol Ford, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, lead researcher of the 2005 study, says the findings indicate that parents should make their view on sex clear to their children.

At the same time, a recent study published by the Journal of Family Issues spearheaded by Mark Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, found that girls with close relationships with their fathers tended to put off having sex.

Theres no magic number when it comes to the age or maturity level that parents believe is the right time for sex, nor is there a single best way for parents to prepare their children for the event, says Ford, though most parents say they would indeed prefer that their children wait until theyre older.

But it seems the earlier that parents start talking about sex, the older that children are when they lose their virginity, Ford says.

Even if parents arent talking about sex, kids are hearing about it, so its best for parents to find a way to discuss it, too. Talk about whats on TV and indicate whether you think its acceptable or unacceptable behavior. What you say will vary depending on the kid, the familys values.

She adds: Waiting until 10 or 11 for the big talk is less effective than incorporating the topic of sexuality in the course of everyday conversation. Discussions wont come easy, but if it doesnt go the way you wish, you can revisit the conversation a few days later. Humor and laughter will help make the conversations comfortable for everyone.

Ford recommends simply keeping sex as part of parents vocabulary, not harping on it but not shying away from opportunities to let their thoughts be known. Also, consider your own childrens ability to comprehend what youre about to say, she says.

With a middle-schooler, for example, dont shut the door on future conversations by speaking in very harsh and specific terms, Ford advises. Instead, she says, if youve come into contact with a young single mother, just make an observation: Itll be hard for her to finish school with a baby, and, gosh, its hard to raise a kid when youre so young.

Consider it an ongoing dialogue instead of the big talk, Ford says.

The dont-have-sex-until-youre-married edict might carry a clearer message, but it might not have as much weight as a series of conversations about why parents believe that and why they want it for their children, Ford says.

The UNC study based its conclusions on interviews done as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Children were first interviewed in 1995, when they were in grades 7-12. Six years later, interviews were conducted with more than 75 percent of the original group. Overall, 6 percent of the respondents tested positive for either chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis during the second go-around.

Ford says in her own conversations with teenagers thinking about having sex, theyre considering the emotional pros and cons, not the risk of STDs or pregnancy. Because of that, it makes sense that their perception of how their own parents view sex is an influencing factor.

The relationship with a parent is very powerful in influencing kids ideas about whats OK and whats not OK, but, at the same time, honestly, I do think its important to get comfortable with the idea of a third party that they (parents) trust to have these conversations, too. It could be a physician, aunt, best friends mother someone who knows their values, Ford says. Its just the dynamics of parent and child. It has nothing to do with being a bad parent.

Regnerus, of UT Austin, embarked on his study, which also used information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, to gauge the effect of religion in sexual decision making. It turned out religion didnt have much of an impact, but when examining adolescents who live in intact, two-parent families, Regnerus did find that a strong father-daughter bond played a significant role.

For girls, my best assessment of why fathers are so important is that teenagers of all sorts are connectional beings. As adolescent girls age, they move from a relationship with their fathers to relationships with boys or young men. In the absence of a good quality relationship with their father, the shift happens earlier, Regnerus says.

Its not that girls are hellbent on having sex; its more about the transfer of relationships with men. Girls with a healthy relationship with dad dont need to look for male love elsewhere.

Its possible dad also put the kibosh on dating, and because the girl values his opinion, she delays a romantic relationship, which usually means delaying sex, he says.

No comparable relationship appeared with boys or with the mother-child relationship, according to the study.

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