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Study Reveals Just How Much Parents Misunderstand Teen Sexuality



It can be difficult for parents of teenagers to come to terms with the fact their kids may have sex, particularly given widespread concerns about the consequences of teen sexual activity. In fact, a study from North Carolina State University shows that many parents think that their children aren’t interested in sex – but that everyone else’s kids are.

“Parents I interviewed had a very hard time thinking about their own teen children as sexually desiring subjects,” says Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology at NC State and author of the study. In other words, parents find it difficult to think that their teenagers want to have sex.

“At the same time,” Elliott says, “parents view their teens’ peers as highly sexual, even sexually predatory.” By taking this stance, the parents shift the responsibility for potential sexual activity to others – attributing any such behavior to peer pressure, coercion or even entrapment.

For example, Elliott says, parents of teenage boys were often concerned that their sons may be lured into sexual situations by teenage girls who, the parents felt, may use sex in an effort to solidify a relationship. The parents of teenage girls, meanwhile, expressed fears that their daughters would be taken advantage of by sexually driven teenage boys.

These beliefs contribute to stereotypes of sexual behavior that aren’t helpful to parents or kids.

“By using sexual stereotypes to absolve their children of responsibility for sexual activity, the parents effectively reinforce those same stereotypes,” Elliott says.

Parents’ use of these stereotypes also paints teen heterosexual relationships in an unflattering, adversarial light, Elliott says and notes the irony of this: “Although parents assume their kids are heterosexual, they don’t make heterosexual relationships sound very appealing.”

Parents who harbor these beliefs may also be less likely to encourage proactive health behaviors such as contraceptives and condom use, which could lead to an increased risk of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among teens.

Further, these beliefs could inhibit open communication about sex. According to a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, only about half of teens report talking to their parents about condoms, sexually transmitted diseases, and other sexual health topics. More than eight in ten teens said they don’t talk to their parents about sexual health issues because they are worried about their parents’ reaction and/or that their parents would think they were planning to have sex. Many teens simply want to talk about these issues, even if they are not yet sexually active. Experts recommend educating parents about healthy sexuality (which is more than just sex!) and providing them with the tools to talk to their children.


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