Talks on drugs and sex are essential

From Tots to Teens

November 05, 1996|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In your columns, you have stressed that parents should talk to their teen-agers about such issues as sex and drugs. I often feel that my 16-year-old just isn't interested.

Is there any proof that having such conversations really accomplishes anything?

We can certainly appreciate the fact that trying to communicate with a teen-ager can be a challenging task. Finding the right moment and the right words is not always easy. Nonetheless, we believe that conversations (not lectures) between parent and teen-ager are essential, and we are encouraged in this regard by the results of a recent study published in the journal Family Planning Perspectives. Researchers from the State University of New York at Albany interviewed 751 teen-agers and their mothers (or in some cases another female caretaker). The adolescents were all between the ages of 14 and 17, with the average age being 15 years; there were an approximately equal number of males and females. The average age of the mothers was 40.

Mothers were asked about their attitudes concerning premarital sexual intercourse. Teen-agers were asked about their perceptions of their mothers' attitudes on this subject and about how satisfied they were with their relationship with their mother.

Sixty-five percent of the males and 50 percent of the females indicated they were no longer virgins at the time of the study.

The study found that as teen-agers' perceptions of mothers' emphasis on abstinence increased, the likelihood that the teen-ager had engaged in intercourse decreased. That is, the more a teen-ager thought his or her mother was against premarital sex, the greater the probability the teen-ager was a virgin. This was true for both males and females. Males, however, generally viewed their mothers as more accepting of premarital sexual activity than did females, suggesting that the double standard for boys and girls may still be alive and well.

Teen-agers who reported a more positive relationship with their mothers also were less likely to report sexual activity.

Even among the sexually active teens, mothers' messages had a significant impact. Those teens who indicated a close relationship with their mothers and who viewed them as opposed to premarital sex had sex less often and used birth control more consistently than teens who believed their mothers were ambivalent or who did not feel close to their mothers.

The authors of the study point out that these factors accounted for only a small percentage of the differences in the sexual behaviors of the adolescents, meaning that teen-agers' decisions about sex are affected by many other things beyond parents' control. Nonetheless, we believe the results of this study do underscore the need for parents and teens to communicate about important health issues.

Teen-agers may not appear to be paying attention, but this study suggests they are still getting the message.

If you would like some materials to help you start things going, call the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy at (410) 767-4160.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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