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Journal of Family Psychology

2010, Vol. 24, No. 6, 731739

2010 American Psychological Association

DOI: 10.1037/a0021760

How Can Parents Make a Difference?

Longitudinal Associations With Adolescent Sexual Behavior
Daneen P. Deptula

David B. Henry

Fitchburg State University

University of Illinois at Chicago

Michael E. Schoeny
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University of Chicago
Parents have the potential to protect against adolescent sexual risk, including early sexual
behavior, inconsistent condom use, and outcomes such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted
infections (STIs). Identification of the specific parenting dimensions associated with sexual risk in
adolescence and young adulthood is necessary to inform and focus prevention efforts. The current
study examined the relation of proximal (e.g., discussions of sexual costs) and distal (e.g., parental
involvement, relationship quality) parenting variables with concurrent and longitudinal adolescent
sexual behavior. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) provided a
nationally representative sample with information about the family using adolescent and parent
informants. Longitudinal information about sexual risk included adolescent condom use and
adolescent sexual initiation, as well as young adult unintended pregnancy, reports of STIs, and
biological assay results for three STIs. Higher parentadolescent relationship quality was associated with lower levels of adolescent unprotected intercourse and intercourse initiation. Better
relationship quality was also associated with lower levels of young adult STIs, even when
accounting for prior sexual activity. Unexpectedly, more parent reports of communication regarding the risks associated with sexual activity were negatively associated with condom use and
greater likelihood of sexual initiation. These results demonstrate that parents play an important
role, both positive and negative, in sexual behavior, which extends to young adulthood, and
underscores the value of family interventions in sexual risk prevention.
Keywords: parents, sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy

Adolescent sexual activity is a risk factor for teenage

pregnancy (Wellings et al., 2001) and sexually transmitted

infections (STIs; Lewis, Melton, Succop, & Rosenthal,

2000). Early sexual initiation is associated with failure to
use birth control, condoms in particular, as well as having
multiple sexual partners over time (Langille & Curtis,
2002). Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to contracting an STI, with 48% of new infections occurring in those
1524 years of age (Weinstock, Berman, & Cates, 2004). In
part, these rates are due to a lack of condom use, with
condom usage decreasing with age (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, 2008). Rates of chlamydia, a treatable but often undetected STI, have recently increased, with
15- to 19-year-old females reporting the highest rates of
infection (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
2009). Adolescent STI history is also a risk factor for future
STIs. A study of 15- to 19-year-old African American males
found that prior STI history was the strongest predictor of
later infections (Wagstaff, Delamater, & Havens, 1999). A
better understanding of the factors that lower the risk of
adolescent STIs is needed to inform prevention efforts.
Ecological theory (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1986) suggests
that sexual behavior, like other behaviors, is influenced by
multiple factors in multiple levels of an adolescents social
life. These factors include individual characteristics, parent
child relations, peer relations, school, and neighborhood
features. Ecodevelopmental theory (Perrino, Gonzalez-

Daneen P. Deptula, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Fitchburg State University; David B. Henry, Institute for Health Research and Policy University of Illinois at Chicago, University of
Illinois at Chicago; Michael E. Schoeny, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, University of Chicago.
Support for this research was provided by National Institute on Child
Health and Human Development Grant R01-HD052444 to David B.
Henry. This article is based on a 2009 presentation at the biennial meeting
of the Society for Research in Child Development. This research uses
data from Add Health, a program project designed by J. Richard Udry,
Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris, and funded by Grant
P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from
17 other agencies. Special acknowledgment is due to Ronald R. Rindfuss
and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Persons interested in obtaining data files from Add Health should contact Add Health,
Carolina Population Center, 123 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC
27516-2524 ( No direct support was received from
Grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Daneen P. Deptula, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Fitchburg
State University, 160 Pearl Street, Fitchburg, MA 01420-2697.


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Soldevilla, Pantin, & Szapocznik, 2000) incorporates ecological, developmental, and system influences in understanding adolescent risk. Specifically, it identifies the family
as the ideal mechanism for prevention and change given the
familys proximal position to the individual as well as the
level of interaction between families and other systems,
such as the school, neighborhood, and peers.
There are several different mechanisms through which
parenting may affect adolescent sexual outcomes. First, the
conversations that parents have with their adolescents about
sex may play an important role in sexual risk protection. For
instance, parents may provide important factual information
and values, which then serve to buffer adolescents from peer
influence (Whitaker & Miller, 2000). Evidence from the
1990s suggests that early adolescents, defined as those between the ages of 13 to 15, are more likely to discuss sexual
matters with their parents than with their friends (DiIorio,
Kelley, & Hockenberry-Eaton, 1999). In addition, talking
openly and skillfully with parents about sexual risk, including topics such as STIs, condom use, and reproduction, is
related to having these same conversations with their sexual
partner (Whitaker, Miller, May, & Levin, 1999).
Second, parents may play a role in adolescent sexual risk
through more distal factors such as parental monitoring,
parental involvement, educational aspirations, and allowed
independence. For instance, higher levels of parental monitoring have been associated with fewer sexual partners,
lower levels of sexual activity, and more consistent condom
use (Borawski, Ievers-Landis, Lovegreen, & Trapl, 2003;
Miller, Forehand, & Kotchick, 1999; Rodgers, 1999).
Lower educational aspirations, held by parents and adolescents, are associated with more risky adolescent sexual
attitudes and behavior (Miller & Sneesby, 1988). Parental
involvement, such as sharing dinner time with their adolescents, is associated with lower levels of sexual initiation
(Pearson, Muller, & Frisco, 2006). Finally, allowed independence has been found to be related to sexual risk for
certain groups such as Caucasian adolescents (Lam, Russell,
Tan, & Leong, 2008) or those from advantaged neighborhoods (Roche et al., 2005). In summary, parental attitudes
and behaviors unrelated to sexuality play a role in adolescent sexual risk.
Third, parentadolescent relationship factors may provide protection against adolescent sexual risk. These relationship factors may include overall communication quality
(i.e., not specific to sexuality) and the quality of the parent
child relationship. Across multiple studies, close parent
child relationships have been associated with delays in
sexual intercourse and more consistent contraception use
(see Fisher, 2004; Miller, Benson, & Galbraith, 2001, for
reviews). For instance, Borawksi, Ievers-Landis, Lovegreen, & Trapl (2003), found that perceived parental trust
was linked with lower levels of female sexual activity.
General communication is also important, as positive, highquality overall communication between mothers and adolescents is associated with fewer sexual partners and less
frequent intercourse (Karofsky, Zen, & Kosorok, 2000;
Miller et al., 1999).

It is important to note that not all studies have supported

a link between parental factors and adolescent sexual risk
protection (e.g., reviews by Fisher, 2004; Miller et al.,
2001). For instance, Perkins, Luster, Villarruel, and Small
(1998) found no relation between either parental monitoring
or family support and adolescent sexual activity. Some
studies have found that parental factors, such as maternal
involvement, actually increase adolescent sexual risk (Davis
& Friel, 2001). In other cases, a curvilinear relationship is
observed, such as with allowed independence. Although
generally related to lower pregnancy risk, restricted independence can be problematic if it is coercive or intrusive
(Miller et al., 2001). Research findings have been particularly inconsistent with respect to the effects of sexual communication on sexual activity (Fisher, 2004). For instance,
Casper (1990) found no relation between parentadolescent
communication about pregnancy and sexual initiation.
These contradictory findings may be due to differences in
measurement, such as examining frequency versus quality
of discussion (Fisher, 2004). Researchers have also proposed that some studies have neglected to consider key
variables, such as parental disapproval of sexual activity
(see review by Zimmer-Gembeck & Helfand, 2008) or
parental comfort and confidence in talking to teens about
sex (see review by Fisher, 2004).
The goal of the present study was to consider multiple
parenting factors that might be associated with sexual activity to explore the specific mechanisms through which
parents might protect adolescents from sexual risk. Ecodevelopmental theory stresses that research should consider
multiple variables representing different dimensions of the
family system (Perrino et al., 2000) given that the effect of
a single dimension might be inflated if examined individually (Magnusson, Andersson, & Trestad, 1993, p. 212).
We used data from the National Longitudinal Study of
Adolescent Health (Add Health), which provided three
waves of data collection with a nationally representative
sample. Scant longitudinal and multi-informant research has
compared the effect of general parenting characteristics,
such as parental involvement, with those of more targeted
parental behaviors, such as communication about sex. As
the current study includes data from mothers and fathers, it
differs from most other Add Health research in that it does
not exclusively study maternal factors (e.g., Dittus & Jaccard, 2000; Lam et al., 2008; McNeely et al., 2002; UsherSeriki, Bynum, & Callands, 2008). Other Add Health studies have focused on different measures of sexual activity
such as noncoital sexual behavior (Lam et al., 2008) or
examined a subset of adolescents in terms of age (McNeely
et al., 2002), race (Lam et al., 2008; Usher-Seriki et al.,
2008) or family structure (Regnerus & Luchies, 2006).
Longitudinal studies using Add Health have focused on
early sexual initiation (Pearson et al., 2006; Regnerus &
Luchies, 2006; Roche et al., 2005). The current study is
unique in its examination of both concurrent and longitudinal sexual risk, extending into the young adult years with
the assessment of unintended pregnancy and STIs.
Demographic differences may interact with parenting
factors in their role in sexual behavior. For instance, in their

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observational study of parents and early adolescents,

Whalen, Henker, Hollingshead, and Burgess (1996) found
that parents engaged in more reciprocity with female adolescents but were more directive with their sons. This directiveness decreased for older adolescents. Similarly, the
use of psychological control (e.g., guilt, limited adolescent
autonomy) was associated with female but not male risky
sexual behavior (Rodgers, 1999). Some studies have failed
to find interactions between parenting factors and ethnicity
in predicting sexual risk (Miller et al., 1999; Perkins et al.,
1998). More research is needed to better understand how
ethnicity might interact with parental factors to protect
against adolescent sexual risk; however, that analysis was
beyond the scope of this article. We included demographic
variables, specifically age, gender, and ethnicity, as covariates in all analyses, and based on evidence of differences in
parenting effects, included interactions with gender and age.
Interactions involving ethnicity were not included as a possible interaction effect given the complexity of the model
and the lack of a cohesive theory concerning the role of
ethnicity in the relation between parenting and adolescent
sexual risk.
In this study, we explored the key parenting factors
associated with risky sexual behavior by examining the
unique variance associated with each parenting dimension,
controlling for the others. We addressed the following research questions. First, what specific parenting factors are
cross-sectionally associated with condom use? We expected
that all parenting factors would have stronger effects on
concurrent risk (e.g., condom nonuse) than on longitudinal
risk outcomes (e.g., young adult STIs) because the impact of
parents behavior and attitudes would be attenuated over
time. Second, what is the role of parents with respect to
sexual initiation? Finally, we considered the role of parenting factors on young adult sexual outcomes, specifically
unintended pregnancy and STI diagnoses. In general, we
expected that more positive parentadolescent relationship
quality and engaging in specific communication with teenagers about sex would be related to lower risk for all of the
measures of young adult sexual outcomes. We also expected
that more general parenting factors, such as parental educational aspirations for the adolescent or allowed independence, would not have longitudinal implications for adolescent sexual outcomes when controlling for the more
proximal factors such as sexual communication.
The Add Health project collected information from a
nationally representative sample using three waves of data
collection. The sample for the current study consisted of
16,980 adolescents with complete Wave I information.
Sample characteristics consisted of approximately equal
distributions of males and females (males 8,441, 49.7%)
with an average age of 16.01 years. Ethnicity was coded
using the following categories: Caucasian, non-Hispanic
White (n 9,432, 55.5%); African American (n 3,636,


21.4%); Hispanic (n 2,732, 16.1%); Asian (n 870,

5.1%); American Indian (n 158, 0.9%); and other (n
152, 0.9%). Multiethnic individuals were coded on the basis
of their self-reported primary ethnicity.
In addition to adolescent interviews, one parent or guardian from each family also provided information as part of
the Wave I in-home portion of the Add Health data collection. The Add Health protocol was to select a female parental figure as the preferred respondent because it was
assumed that female caregivers would be more extensively
involved in the adolescents life. Past research has found
that adolescents of either gender were more likely to discuss
sexual matters with their mothers than fathers (DiIorio et al.,
1999; Dutra, Miller, & Forehand, 1999; Guzman et al.,
2003). In addition, mothers but not fathers sexual communication has been related to adolescent engagement in
risky sexual behavior (Dutra et al., 1999). Over 93% of the
parental survey was completed by female parents or other
female caregivers (e.g., stepmother, grandmother, foster
mother, adoptive mother).
A subsample of the Wave I data collection participated in
Wave II and Wave III data collections. Wave II sexual
history information was collected via self-report from the
adolescents approximately 1 year after Wave I data collection. A total of 12,436 adolescents (73.2%) in the current
sample provided information at Wave II. Approximately 6
years later, Wave III information was collected from the
(then) young adult participants. Wave III information for the
purposes of the current study consisted of self-reported STI
diagnoses (n 12,634, 74.4%), STI assay results (n
10,324, 60.8%), and reports of unintended pregnancies (n
6,082, 35.8%).
At Wave I, the Add Health study recruited a nationally
representative sample of students in grades 7 to 12 from 132
schools (Bearman, Jones, & Udry, 1997). The in-home
administration was completed between September 1994 and
April 1995, with most interviews taking place in the respondents homes. Sensitive items, such as those assessing sexual activity, were administered via headphones, with the
adolescent entering the information directly into the laptop
(audio-CASI). This approach reduced biases due to interviewer or parental influence. Depending on the participants
experiences, the interview required 1 to 2 hr to complete.
Information was also collected from one parent at Wave I.
Wave II data collection occurred between April 1996 and
August 1996. Participants in 12th grade at Wave I were not
included in the Wave II sample. Data collection procedures
matched those described above, with most interviews conducted in respondents homes. Wave III data collection
occurred between August 2001 and April 2002. In addition
to the laptop interview, biological specimen data were collected from the participants. Although respondents outside
of the United States were excluded from Wave III participation, efforts were made to interview participants housed
in correctional facilities. Both the Add Health study and this



secondary data analysis were approved by the Institutional

Review Boards of the respective academic institutions.

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Demographic variables. Adolescent ethnicity and gender
were assessed using self-reported data collected at Wave I.
The participants age was calculated by subtracting the
reported birth date from the questionnaire administration
date. Because the average age for the adolescent participants
was 16.01 years, age was dichotomized for those older and
younger than 16 years to aid in interpretability of interactions involving age.
Parenting variables.
Seven parenting measures were
collected at Wave I. The interview was structured so that
adolescents could report on their relationships with the
individual they considered to be their parent, which included biological, foster, adoptive, and step parents. Parent
reports of sexual communication with the adolescent were
collected from one parent at Wave I. Parent reports were not
collected in subsequent waves.
Parentadolescent relationship.
Adolescents reported
their perception of the overall quality of their relationships
with their parents. Their relationships with their mother and
father were each assessed with five items. Exemplary items
were, Overall, you are satisfied with the way you and your
mother/father communicate with each other and You are
satisfied with your relationship with your mother/father.
Higher scores indicated more positive perceptions. To maximize the sample size and to preserve information from
adolescents with a single parent, we used information from
only one parent in the analyses. When adolescents reported
on their relationship with both parents, information reflecting the most positive, or higher quality, relationship was
retained for these analyses based on the theory that the
protective effects, if any, of the parentadolescent relationship would be determined by the adolescents stronger
relationship. In other words, having a high-quality parent
adolescent relationship with one parent would be superior
with respect to risk prevention compared with two lower
quality parentadolescent relationships. Cronbach alpha reliabilities were .85 for relationship with mother and .89 for
relationship with father. There was a moderate correlation
between reports of relationship quality with mothers and
fathers, r(14,448) .46, p .001.
Parental involvement. Adolescents reported on the extent of their mothers and fathers involvement in their lives
using 10 yesno items for each relationship. Items assessed
involvement in activities such as sports, shopping, and
viewing movies, as well as discussing problems. Cronbach
alpha reliabilities were .55 for mother involvement and .57
for father involvement. To maximize sample size, we used
the highest score for adolescents who rated both parents
levels of involvement. The correlation between parental
involvement for mothers and fathers was small but significant, r(20,774) .29, p .001.
Educational aspirations.
Educational aspirations were
assessed by asking the adolescents how disappointed their
parent would be should the adolescent fail to graduate from

high school or college. Reports of perceived aspirations for

the adolescent were rated on a 5-point scale for each parent.
These four items demonstrated good internal consistency
reliability, with Cronbachs alpha .75. The measure was
scored so that higher educational aspiration scores indicated
a stronger perceived focus on the adolescent completing his
or her education.
Allowed independence. Adolescents were asked seven
yesno questions that assessed the extent to which they
were allowed to make their own decisions regarding friends,
clothing, television, and eating habits. The seven items were
averaged to form one score, with higher values indicating
greater allowed independence. Internal consistency of this
measure was .63 as measured by Cronbachs alpha.
Sexual communication attitudes.
At Wave I, parents
were asked five questions regarding communication with
their adolescent on the topic of sex. These items were
determined to reflect an overall sense of comfort, competence, and need for sexual communication between parents
and adolescents. Sample items included It would embarrass [childs name] to talk to you about sex and birth
control and [childs name] will get the information somewhere else so you dont really need to talk to (him/her)
about sex and birth control. The items, rated on a 5-point
scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, were
averaged and coded so that higher scores indicated greater
comfort. Cronbachs alpha for this scale was .80.
Discussions of sexual costs. Four items assessed the discussion of specific sexual consequences, including the dangers of getting an STI, the negative impact on their social
life due to a loss of peer respect, the moral issues of not
having sex, and the negative consequences of pregnancy.
The response format was a 4-point scale of agreement
(ranging from not at all to a great deal). For instance,
parents were asked how often they had discussed sexual
intercourse with their adolescent and the negative or bad
things that would happen if [he got someone/she got] pregnant? Due to the tone of these items, the variable was named
discussions of sexual costs and coded so that higher scores
indicated more parental discussion of the risks and potential
negative consequences of sexual activity (Cronbachs alpha .87).
Parental disapproval. Parents opinions regarding their
adolescents sexual activity were assessed using one item.
Using a 5-point scale, parents rated their agreement (from
strongly agree to strongly disagree) with the following
statement: You disapprove of [childs name] having sexual
intercourse at this time in [his/her] life. The variable was
coded so that higher scores indicated more disapproval of
the prospect of the adolescent having sex.
Sexual risk and outcome variables.
Four measures of
sexual risk, incorporating information across three waves of
data collection, were included in the present study.
Sexual activity. At Waves I and II, adolescent participants were asked whether they had ever engaged in sexual
intercourse. Answers consisted of either a yes or a no

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Intercourse without a condom. At Wave I, the adolescents
who reported engaging in sexual activity were asked, for
each reported partner, if they had engaged in vaginal sexual
intercourse without using a condom during the past year. Up
to six partners were queried, resulting in a maximum possible score of 6. Adolescents who did not report engaging in
intercourse received a score of 0. This measure of condom
nonuse was used because Add Health did not ask adolescents to provide condom use information for each sexual
Unintended pregnancy. At Wave III, young adult participants were asked a series of questions for each of their
reported relationships in the years since the Wave II data
collection. For each relationship, respondents were asked
whether a pregnancy had occurred in the context of the
relationship. If the answer was yes and the respondent
reported that he or she did not want to have a child at that
time, or that he or she did not want the relationship partner
to be the childs parent, then the pregnancy was coded as
unintended. Respondents were coded 1 if they had a history
of any unintended pregnancy, and 0 otherwise.
STIs. This variable reflected biological assay results and
self-report data. Participants were tested for three STIs at
Wave III: chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. Participants could obtain their biological specimen results by
calling a toll-free number and providing their password.
Additional information can be found in the Add Heath
Biomarker Team (n.d.) documentation. In addition, they
were asked to disclose whether they had received a diagnosis of chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, syphilis, HIV,
or other infections from a health professional in the past 12
months. It is important to note that chlamydia, gonorrhea,
and trichomoniasis are treatable STIs. Although it is tempting to consider STI assay results as a gold standard
measure free from the distortion of social desirability, it is
possible that participants who correctly recognized their
symptoms or were tested previously had already obtained
treatment resulting in a negative assay result with a positive
self-report. Therefore, we included self-report data in our
measure of STIs, with either a positive assay result or
positive reports of STI history coded as positive for a
history of STIs.
The vast majority of tested participants tested negative
for all three STIs (n 9,594, 92.9%). A total of 676
participants (6.5%) were positive for one of the three STIs,
49 (0.5%) were positive for two, and five (0.1%) participants were positive for all three STIs. Self-report data
indicated that the majority (91.4%) of the sample denied
receiving any STI diagnoses during the specified time period. As expected, the overlap between assay results and
self-reports was minimal but significant, 2(24, N
10,282) 72.94, p .001.

We used logistic regression to explore the relations between parenting variables and adolescent sexual behavior.
Four logistic regression analyses were conducted, one for
each sexual outcome variable, including all of the predictor


variables (demographic factors, family main effects, and

interactions) in the model. Therefore, the result for each
variable indicates the unique variance accounted for by the
variable. Although we indicate effects that were significant
at p .05 in the tables, we focus our interpretations on
those that were significant at p .01 because of the large
number of effects tested in the model.
All continuous variables were mean-centered to aid in
interpretability. PROC SURVEYLOGISTIC in SAS 9.1
allowed us to include grand sampling weights and cluster
variables for either concurrent analyses, Wave I to II longitudinal analyses, or Wave I to III longitudinal analyses. In
addition, we also included a region stratification variable
(Northeast, Midwest, South, West) in the analyses. A description of these sampling variables can be found in the
Add Health documentation (Bearman, Jones, & Udry, 2003;
Chantala & Tabor, 1999).
Because the continuous parenting variables were measured using different scales, the scores were standardized
using the semi-interquartile range to allow the reader to
compare effects across variables (Steyerberg, 2009). This
approach does not equalize the variances as common standardization does. It removes the effects of outliers, allows
for comparison across variables, and does not change the
significance values compared with those obtained with the
raw scores (Harrell, 2001; Steyerberg, 2009). As a result,
the reported odds ratios represent the change in risk associated with a 25 percentile difference in the parenting variable (e.g., allowed independence changing from 25th to
50th percentile).
In addition to the parenting variables, main effects for
age, gender, and ethnicity were included in the regression
models. Age and gender interactions with the parenting
variables were also investigated.
We sought to identify the parenting factors associated
with sexual activity and health at three time points: concurrent sexual activity, initiation over 1 year, and sexual health
outcomes in young adulthood. Means, standard deviations,
and correlations among the parenting predictor variables are
reported in Table 1. Although most correlations between
parenting factors were statistically significant, the parenting
factors represented fairly independent aspects of the family
Predictors of Intercourse Without a Condom
Of the 6,512 adolescents engaging in intercourse at Wave
I, 2,265 (34.8%) reported engaging in intercourse without a
condom. The first analysis was a regression model that
examined the parenting factors associated with concurrent
(Wave I) condom nonuse controlling for age, gender, and
ethnicity. Table 2 displays the main effects as well as any
significant age or gender interaction effects. There were
significant interactions with age for parentadolescent relationship quality and allowed independence. We found that
parenting factors were more strongly associated with con-



Table 1
Family Variable Correlations

Parentadolescent relationshipa
Parental involvementa
Educational aspirationsa
Allowed independencea
Parental disapprovalb
Discussions of sexual costsb
Sexual communication attitudesb











Adolescent report. b Parent report.

p .05. p .01.
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dom nonuse for younger adolescents. Specifically, lower

parental relationship quality and higher levels of allowed
independence were more strongly associated with condom
nonuse for younger adolescents compared with adolescents
older than 16 years. Significant main effects indicated that
lower levels of educational aspirations and perceived parental disapproval were associated with more condom nonuse.
It is interesting that more discussions of sexual costs were
also associated with greater likelihood of condom nonuse.
Initiation of Sexual Activity
The next set of analyses focused on a subsample of
adolescents who, at Wave I, reported not engaging in sexual
activity. Of the 8,203 Wave I adolescents who denied engaging in sexual intercourse prior to Wave I, 6,554 (79.9%)
continued to report abstinence from sexual intercourse at
Wave II. Table 3 displays the results of the regression
analyses predicting Wave II initiation within this subsample. No gender or age interactions were significant.
Lower levels of parentadolescent relationship quality,
lower levels of parental educational aspirations, and more
perceived parental disapproval were related to sexual intercourse initiation. Higher levels of parental involvement,

Table 2
Main Effects and Significant Interaction Terms for
Concurrent Condom Nonuse Analysis


Parentadolescent relationship
Parental involvementa
Educational aspirationsa
Allowed independencea
Parental disapprovalb
Discussions of sexual costsb
Sexual communication attitudesb
Age ParentAdolescent Relationshipa
Age Allowed Independencea
Age Discussions of Sexual Costsb


allowed independence, and discussions of sexual costs were

significantly associated with initiation. Similar to the findings of the analysis for concurrent condom nonuse, parental
attitudes about sexual communication were not related to
sexual intercourse initiation.
Unintended Pregnancy
The Wave III analyses included Wave I engagement in
sexual intercourse in addition to the parenting and demographic variables. As expected, engagement in sexual intercourse at Wave I was positively associated with reports of
unintended pregnancy at Wave III. No age or gender interactions emerged. In addition, no family factors were significant at p .01 (see Table 3).
STI Diagnoses
In the logistic regression analyses for Wave III STI
diagnoses, measured by combining self-reports and assay
results, several Wave I parenting variables were significant
predictors (see Table 3). With Wave I sexual intercourse
entered in the model, an age by discussions of sexual costs
interaction emerged, indicating that discussions of sexual
costs at Wave I with younger adolescents were more
strongly and positively associated with Wave III STI diagnoses. In addition, Wave III STI diagnoses were negatively
related to parentadolescent relationship quality and parental educational aspirations.

95% CI
0.76, 0.84
1.00, 1.11
0.91, 0.97
1.11, 1.23
0.89, 0.94
1.19, 1.38
0.91, 1.01
1.05, 1.15
0.89, 0.97
0.85, 0.98

Note. OR odds ratio; CI confidence interval. Analyses

included the appropriate sample weights, age, gender, and ethnicity. Full tables, including the statistics for the main effects and the
nonsignificant interaction terms, are available from the first author
on request.
Adolescent report. b Parent report.

p .05. p .01. p .001.

How can parents promote adolescent safer sexual behaviors? What specific parenting factors relate to later sexual
risk and STIs? We addressed these questions for several risk
factors across time (i.e., concurrent risk, sexual initiation,
longitudinal sexual risk).
The overall quality of the parentadolescent relationship
was found to be a key variable in adolescent risky sexual
behavior and was associated with lower levels of unprotected intercourse, particularly for younger adolescents, intercourse initiation, and STI diagnosis. These findings add
to a body of literature demonstrating the importance of the
parentadolescent relationship (e.g., see review by Luster &
Small, 1994; Miller et al., 2001; Small & Luster, 1994;



Table 3
Main Effects and Significant Interaction Terms for Longitudinal Outcome Analyses
Intercourse initiation

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Wave I sexual intercourse
Parentadolescent relationshipa
Parental involvementa
Educational aspirationsa
Allowed independencea
Parental disapprovalb
Discussions of sexual costsb
Sexual communication attitudesb
Age ParentAdolescent Relationshipa
Age Discussions of Sexual Costsb


95% CI

Unintended pregnancy

0.79, 0.91
1.03, 1.17
0.89, 0.98
1.03, 1.18
0.89, 0.97
1.08, 1.34
0.87, 1.04
1.01, 1.18


95% CI
1.38, 1.68
0.89, 1.02
0.86, 0.99
0.89, 1.00
0.96, 1.15
0.94, 1.02
1.01, 1.23
0.98, 1.14

Sexually transmitted


95% CI
1.08, 1.33
0.85, 0.95
0.98, 1.12
0.88, 0.97
0.94, 1.06
0.96, 1.04
0.94, 1.13
0.92, 1.07
0.80, 0.97

Note. OR odds ratio; CI confidence interval. Analyses included the appropriate sample weights, age, gender, and ethnicity. Full
tables, including the statistics for the main effects and the nonsignificant interaction terms, are available from the first author on request.
Adolescent report. b Parent report.

p .05. p .01. p .001.

Smith, 1997) and adds relevant information for a young

adult sample. Our results suggest that high-quality parent
adolescent relationships are associated with better young
adult sexual outcomes (e.g., lower risk for STI diagnoses)
even when considering history of previous sexual activity
and other parenting variables. In particular, parenting factors such as parentadolescent relationship quality appeared
to function as a promotive factor reducing early engagement
in risky sexual behavior.
Parents may find it counterintuitive that having more
discussions about sexual risk would be positively related to
sexual risk behaviors. However, as pointed out in the introduction section, the literature in this area has revealed
inconsistent findings (e.g., Fisher, 2004). Studies based on
Add Health data are also inconsistent. For instance, Lam et
al. (2008) found that more Wave I discussions of sexual
costs were associated with more Wave II noncoital sexual
behavior. In contrast, Usher-Seriki et al. (2008) found that
teenage girls were less likely to be sexually active when
their mothers reported more discussions of sexual costs.
However, the Usher-Seriki study excluded the costs item
about STIs and examined a subsample of middle-class African American females, resulting in both measurement and
sample differences.
Extent of communication about sex in and of itself may
not be as important as the quality of the discussion (Wilson
& Donenberg, 2004). In the current study, we lacked information about the emotional tone as well as the specific
content of the conversations. With respect to emotional
tone, Dutra et al. (1999) found that open and receptive
communication about sex was associated with lower levels
of sexual risk. In addition, Mueller and Powers (1990)
found that warm and friendly adolescent perceptions of
parents general communication were associated with lower
levels of sexual activity and higher levels of contraceptive
use. Dominant, contentious, and dramatic parenting communication styles were related to more risky adolescent
sexual behavior. An interesting result of the current study
was that parental reports of comfort and confidence in

communicating with their teens was not related to sexual

risk. Instead, adolescents perceptions of the nature of the
conversation may be more important.
Although we know that the type of communication assessed by Add Health was primarily discouraging in nature,
focusing on STI risk and the moral implications of sexual
behavior, we do not know the specific content of the conversations. Kim and Ward (2007) as well as DiIorio, Pluhar,
and Belcher (2003) provide examples of studies that more
specifically assess the content of the conversations. For the
current study, we do not know whether the discussion of
STI risk included information about condom use or was
focused on abstinence. It appears from these results that
parental communication focused solely on discouraging
risky behavior does not serve as a protective factor for
adolescent sexual behavior. In fact, such discussions may do
more harm than good. These findings suggest that parents
may need specific guidance on how to talk to their adolescent or how not to talk to their teenager. In the current study,
comfort with sexual communication was not related to
concurrent unprotected sexual intercourse and sexual initiation. Therefore, parents should be encouraged to talk to
their teens despite their comfort level, with the goal of
holding warm, open, and receptive conversations.
Parent reports of sexual communication were not collected at Wave II or III by the Add Health study. This
omission results in the most significant limitation of the
current study, particularly in relation to the findings on
parental discussions of sexual costs. It is difficult to determine whether adolescent and young adult risky behavior
resulted from parental discussions of sexual costs or
whether the reverse is true. Similar research using the Add
Health data set has found adolescent reports of decreased
adolescentparent closeness both before and after sexual
activity (Ream & Savin-Williams, 2005), suggesting a reciprocal relationship between family factors and adolescent
Another potential limitation is the low internal consistencies of the measures of allowed independence and parental

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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.



involvement. However, these measures comprised causal

indicators (see Streiner, 2003, for a review) that assess a
range of possible facets of allowed independence and parental involvement that may not be correlated. For instance,
parents might have restrictions on television watching but
not on the selection of peers. Thus, we would not expect
high internal consistency in these types of measures
(Streiner, 2003).
Complicating the results, adolescents may have provided information about a different parent figure than the
adult who completed the parental report. Although Add
Health attempted to obtain information from the most
relevant parent figure, it was not always possible. In
addition, although the vast majority of the parent reports
were completed by a maternal figure, we chose to include
adolescent data for both mothers and fathers. Using data
from fathers allowed us to include adolescents from
single-father households as well as consider their role in
a two-family household. To assess the effect of allowing
adolescent report of paternal or maternal family factors,
we reran the analyses with reports of maternal-only parental involvement and motheradolescent relationship
quality. The results were extremely similar, with one
interaction effect significant at p .01. A strong mother
adolescent relationship was protective against sexual initiation among younger adolescents.
Because our focus was on parenting practices, we did not
include family structure variables such as single-parent
homes, which could also be considered a limitation of the
study. However, past research has found that process variables are more predictive of sexual risk outcomes for young
adolescents than structure variables (Miller et al., 1999).
Another potential limitation is the absence of potential
third variables that might influence sexual risk, such as
peer factors, socioeconomic status, or parental education.
Another potential limitation is that we did not examine
interactions with ethnicity, believing this was beyond the
scope of this article.
Although we used both parental and adolescent informants in this study, adolescents and their parents often do
not agree when asked about their sexual communication
(see Fisher, 2004, for review). Future research needs to
address this lack of convergence and examine whether
different results would be obtained by adolescent report.
Finally, future research should consider that the first wave
of Add Health data collection occurred in 1994. It is possible that these findings do not hold for the current generation of adolescents and their families.
In summary, the current research demonstrates the
importance of the overall parentadolescent relationship,
which may also be reflected in the quality of the conversations parents have with their teenagers about sex. Using
a multi-informant, longitudinal approach with a nationally representative sample, the study demonstrates the
importance of parenting factors even into young adulthood. Although many parenting aspects were related to
concurrent sexual risk, prevention efforts should focus on
adolescentparent relationship building and developing

the skills to have a positive, open dialogue about sexual

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Received January 20, 2010

Revision received September 18, 2010
Accepted September 20, 2010