Let's talk about sex -- helping parents raise sexually healthy young people

July 10, 2008

Parenting programmes in the workplace can significantly improve parents' ability to talk with their children about sexual health and may provide a unique way of promoting healthy adolescent sexual behaviour, concludes a study published on BMJ.com today.

Research shows that parents can significantly influence adolescents' sexual health and risk behaviours through their parenting practices and talking about sex. For example, previous studies have found that adolescents whose parents talk to them about sex are more likely to delay intercourse, use contraception and have fewer partners.

But many parents and adolescents feel uncomfortable talking about sex because they are embarrassed or unsure of what to say or how to begin.

Researchers from Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, report a randomised trial to assess if a parenting programme in the workplace, to help parents become more comfortable and skilled at communicating with adolescents about sexual health, has an effect on parents' ability to communicate with their children.

569 parents of adolescents aged 11-16 years were randomised to attend the parenting programme, Talking Parents, Health Teens or to receive no intervention. The programme consisted of 8 weekly one hour sessions during the lunch hour in 13 workplaces in California. Parents and adolescents were sent follow-up surveys at 1 week, 3 months, and 9 months.

The authors found that the work-based approach had immediate significant and ongoing effects on parent-adolescent communication. Parents attending the programme were more likely to discuss new sexual topics, had more conversations about topics they had previously discussed and were more open to communication about sex.

"We'd teach them some skills one week, and they'd come back the next week bubbling over with excitement that they'd talked with their teen about relationships, love, or sex...their teen had actually engaged in a real conversation with them, or role-played a topic like how to say no to unwanted sexual advances", said Mark Schuster who led the study.

The authors also note that before the programme few parents had taught their children how to use condoms, but one week after completion of the programme, 18% of adolescents in the intervention group and 3% in the control group said their parents had reviewed how to use a condom, this increased to 25% v 5% at nine months.

In light of the findings, the authors urge doctors to consider worksite health promotion to address behavioural health concerns of patients and families.

Few parents are willing or able to participate or travel to special parenting programmes in the evening or at the weekend, therefore the success of this programme in the workplace is particularly important, says Dr Douglas Kirby, from ETR Associates (a no-profit organisation set up to improve the health of individuals, families and communities), in an accompanying editorial.

More research is needed to examine parent-child communication and its effect on sexual behaviours, he adds.
-end-
Contacts:
Dr Mark Schuster, Chief of general paediatrics, Children's Hospital Boston, Boston, USA.
Via James Newton, Public Affairs Office, Children's Hospital Boston, Boston, USA.
Email: james.newton@childrens.harvard.edu

Editorial: Dr Douglas Kirby, ETR Associates, California, USA.
Email: dougk@etr.org

BMJ

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