Communication Currents

Mom and daughter talking

Let’s Talk About Sex: Parents, Your Kids Want to Hear from You

May 11, 2018
Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication

Most research exploring parent-adolescent child communication about sex-related topics focuses on the perceptions of parents and their concerns. There has been little research examining teens’ points of view. A recently published article in NCA’s journal Communication Monographs, by Amanda Holman (Creighton University) and Jody Koenig Kellas (University of Nebraska Lincoln), analyzes results from a study that asked 389 teens about memorable sex-related conversations they had with their parents, and their perceptions of the effectiveness of that communication, especially as it relates to reducing risky sexual behavior. The results showed that adolescents prefer comprehensive, specific conversations with their parents, rather than vague and underdeveloped talk that focus on wait and warning messages. The bottom line? “Adolescents want their parents to talk to them about sex,” the authors write.

Content Is Key

Holman and Koenig Kellas explain that the communicated sense-making model (CSM) and communicated narrative sense-making theory (CNSM) “highlight the importance of message content, suggesting that memorable messages and storytelling in the family serve socializing and identity-building functions as well as predict individual and relational health.” They contend that what parents say when talking to their kids about sex, and how they do it, matters most in making their conversations memorable and effective.

Many parents doubt their knowledge and ability to present sex-related information to their teens effectively, especially given the sensitive nature of the topic. Thus, the authors undertook the study to find out from teens themselves just what they want to hear from their parents. “Children and parents tend to differ in their perceptions of communication effectiveness,” the authors note. Parents evaluate conversations based on their concern for their child, while teens base their evaluations on their parents’ communication behaviors rather than their intentions. Holman and Koenig Kellas argue that “The more a child perceives that his/her parent is competent in communicating about sex, the more likely the child might be to listen and heed the advice of his/her parents and reduce sexual risk."

"My dad just said don't have sex and that's it."

The study was conducted with 389 high-school and first-semester college students, 70 percent of whom were female, and nearly 60 percent of whom had engaged in sexual intercourse. Ten percent of the teens reported that their parent had never had a conversation with them regarding sex.

The anonymous online questionnaire included fixed-response items, scales, and open-ended questions. For the open-ended questions, teens were asked to provide accounts of the most memorable conversation that they remember having had with their parents about sex, focusing on the types of conversations and how they responded to these communications. The memorable conversation types were broken into six categories: underdeveloped, safety, comprehensive talk, warning/threat, wait, no talk. In addition, the teens answered questions about what they would have preferred their parents to say. These categories included: no change, be more specific/provide guidance, talk to me, appropriateness, and collaborate.

"I wish my mom would be more of a listener or ask questions rather than preach her views."

Here are some high-level results:

  • Nearly half of the participants reported that their parents talked to them only about sexual safety, or provided vague and basic information about sex (e.g., underdeveloped).
  • Teens prefer comprehensive talk and safety conversations with specifics on contraception, STIs/AIDS, and pregnancy.
  • Comprehensive conversations, which included talking about physical aspects of sex (puberty, sexual acts), as well as discussion and stories about dating, emotions, and pressures associated with sex were perceived as the most effective messages by teens.
  • Teens who heard messages related to safety were less likely to engage in sexual risk-taking or to have permissive sexual attitudes than teens who heard wait messages.
  • Teens wanted “the parents to provide more – more conversations, more details on sexual health and safety, more listening and less lecturing, and more awareness on what is, and is not, appropriate.”

Applying the Data

So, what does this mean for parents? The study findings should “empower parents to talk early, often, and openly about safety in comprehensive ways,” Holman and Koenig Kellas write. “Adolescents did not want their parents to shy away from these often difficult and uncomfortable conversations.”

These lessons can be used to create and test strategies to improve parent-child communication about sex, and the authors recommend collaboration between teens, parents, educators, and healthcare professionals. They suggest developing and testing effectiveness of PSAs, infographic fact sheets, online resources, and training using the study results.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Holman, Amanda and Koenig Kellas, Jody. (2018). “‘Say something instead of nothing’: Adolescents’ perceptions of memorable conversations about sex-related topics with their parents.” Communication Monographs. doi: 10.1080/03637751.2018.1426870

About the author (s)

Amanda Holman

Creighton Unviersity

Assistant Professor

Amanda Holman

Jody Koenig Kellas

University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Jody Koenig Kellas