Quality of ParenteAdolescent Conversations About Sex and
Adolescent Sexual Behavior: An Observational Study
Adam A. Rogers, M.S.
, Thao Ha, Ph.D.
, Elizabeth A. Stormshak, Ph.D.
, and Thomas J. Dishion, Ph.D.
T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Family and Human Development, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
Counseling Psychology and Human Services, College of Education, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
Prevention Research Center, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
Article history: Received August 29, 2014; Accepted April 21, 2015
Keywords: Sexual behavior; Adolescent; Observation; Parentechild communication; Quality of communication
Purpose: Studies suggest that the quality of parenteadolescent communication about sex uniquely
predicts adolescent sexual behavior. Previous studies have relied predominantly on self-report
data. Observational methods, which are not susceptible to self-report biases, may be useful in
examining the associations between the quality of parenteadolescent communication about sex
and adolescent sexual behavior more objectively.
Methods: With a sample of adolescents (N ¼55, 58% male, 44% white, M
¼15.8) and their
parents, we used hierarchical logistic regression analyses to examine the associations between the
observed quality of parenteadolescent communication about dating and sex and the likelihood of
Results: The quality of parenteadolescent communication about dating and sex predicted sexual
behavior. Speciﬁcally, lecturing was associated with a higher likelihood of adolescents having had
Conclusions: The quality of parenteadolescent communication about sex is a unique correlate of
adolescent sexual behavior and warrants further investigation. Thus, it serves as a potential target
of preventive interventions that aim to foster adolescent sexual health behaviors.
Ó2015 Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. All rights reserved.
The quality of parente
about sex may be uniquely
associated with adolescent
sexual behavior. Parents
that were observed
lecturing their adolescents
about dating and sex had
children who reported a
higher likelihood of sexual
intervention services tar-
geting quality of parente
Parents’direct communication with their adolescent children
about sex plays a key role in preventing adolescents’early and
risky sexual behavior . Most research on parenteadolescent
communication about sex has focused on the frequency and/or
content of their sex-related conversations . Research has
shown, however, that the quality of these conversations is also a
reliable predictor of adolescent sexual health and behavior.
Speciﬁcally, parenteadolescent communication about sex that
is receptive, supportive, and open in moderate degrees is
associated with later age of initiating sexual intercourse ,
diminished sexual risk-taking [4,5], and early adolescents’
greater valuing of sexual abstinence .
On the other hand, when this sex-related communication is
parent-dominated or harsh, it may have the opposite effect.
Lefkowitz et al.  observed mothereadolescent conversations
about AIDS and found that mothers’domination of these con-
versations predicted greater discrepancies between mothers’
and adolescents’knowledge about AIDS transmission and pre-
vention. A follow-up study showed this same pattern in an
ethnically diverse sample, speciﬁcally that mothers who domi-
nated conversations about AIDS had adolescents who knew less
about these same AIDS topics than those whose mothers
engaged them with a more interactive communication style .
*Address correspondence to: Adam A. Rogers, M.S., T. Denny Sanford School
of Social and Family Dynamics, 951 S Cady Mall, Arizona State University, Tempe,
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (A.A. Rogers).
1054-139X/Ó2015 Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. All rights reserved.
Journal of Adolescent Health 57 (2015) 174e178
Studies on other forms of adolescent problem behavior have
shown a similar trend, speciﬁcally that caregivers’use of criti-
cism and contempt to solve difﬁculties with adolescents may
exacerbate problem behavior over time . In sum, when it
comes to parenteadolescent conversations about sex, the quality
of parents’communication with their adolescent children may
uniquely relate to how well adolescents internalize parents’
Currently, most of the associations between the quality of
communication and adolescent sexual behaviors are derived
from retrospective and self-report data . Such data are infor-
mative but are also susceptible to self-report biases that could
misrepresent how parents and adolescents actually communi-
cate about sex. Observational coding by independent observers
may tap these communication processes with increased preci-
sion, an approach that has already been successfully employed in
a number of studies [8,10,11].
Building on this research, we used trained observer ratings of
parenteadolescent conversations about dating and sex to
examine the associations between the quality of parente
adolescent communication and adolescents’engagement in
sexual intercourse. Based on the literature previously discussed,
we hypothesized that open and supportive communication
characterized by reciprocity and teaching would be associated
with adolescents’diminished likelihood of sexual intercourse,
whereas harsh communication characterized by lecturing would
be associated with an increased likelihood of sexual intercourse.
We examined these relations while controlling for two general
parenting variables, parental monitoring, and parenteadolescent
relationship quality. Both these variables are protective factors in
adolescents’sexual behavior and health [12,13]. Furthermore,
parental monitoring and parenteadolescent relationship quality
may manifest in how families communicate about dating and
Participants were a subgroup of families from a randomized
intervention study in which the family check-up intervention
 was administered to 197 families of middle-school students.
Of those families, 55 (28%) opted for additional follow-up sup-
port and comprise the current sample. The average age of the
adolescents was 15.8 years (standard deviation [SD] ¼.59).
Thirty-two of the adolescents (58.2%) were male; 24 (44%) self-
reported as white, 14 (25%) as Latino/a, and 9 (16%) as African-
American. The median gross annual income of the families was
$35,000e$45,00 0, slightly below the national average of $52,000
After obtaining approval through the University of Oregon
Institutional Review Board, participating families were visited in
their homes or invited to come into the Oregon Child and Family
Center laboratory, where they participated in a series of video-
taped conversation tasks. First, they discussed expectations for
their adolescent regarding friendships and dating for 5 minutes.
Second, they discussed expectations around sex, alcohol and
drug use, and risky behaviors for 8 minutes. At least one (n ¼36;
33 mothers, three fathers) but sometimes both (n ¼19) parents
were present for these conversations. Immediately after
completing these conversation tasks, family members ﬁlled out
surveys assessing a variety of health and problem behaviors.
Quality of parenteadolescent communication. The ﬁrst two
authors developed a coding manual that assessed global parente
adolescent communication processes. A subset of the coding
manual was designed to examine the quality of parente
adolescent communication. Quality of communication about
sex-related topics has typically been conceptualized as the
degree of openness, mutuality, and comfort between the
conversing parties . Based on this conceptualization, we
developed 19 items tapping various parent-based aspects (e.g.,
teaching, lecturing, interest/exploration, prying, limit-setting)
and family-level aspects (e.g., reciprocity) of communication
quality, all on a nine-point scale.
Two coders were trained for reliability purposes. These
coders were instructed to code parenteadolescent communi-
cation only when dating and sex were the speciﬁctopicsunder
discussion (i.e., coders did not code parenteadolescent
communication when the topic under discussion was some-
thing other than dating or sex, such as friends or drug use). The
topic of sex included topics about kissing; noncoital sexual
behaviors such as petting, necking, and oral sex; sexual inter-
course; contraceptives; and pubertal development. Dating
included topics around attraction to another person, desirable
qualities in a partner, romantic interests, “ﬂirting,”going on
dates, and having a committed dating relationship. During
training, if coders’scores were discordant (off by more than two
points), coding episodes were reviewed with the ﬁrst two
authors. Training meetings were held until an interrater reli-
ability (intraclass correlation, or ICC) of .73 was reached. Thirty
percent of the tapes were coded by both coders for reliability
After all 55 families’conversations were coded, we ran an
exploratory factor analysis (principal axis factoring) using an
oblique (promax) rotation to identify the latent structure un-
derlying the quality of parenteadolescent communication about
dating and sex. Items loading below .40 and/or cross loading
above .35 on any of the factors were removed from the model.
One additional item was removed because it displayed poor
interrater reliability. The ﬁnal extraction revealed 12 items
loading onto three underlying dimensions that explained 63.99%
of the variance among the items (see Table 1). These underlying
dimensions were reciprocity,lecturing, and teaching.
Reciprocity consisted of four items and represented the family
members’positive and mutual participation in the conversation.
Thus, reciprocity was coded as the degree of mutuality among
family members verbally (e.g., all family members exchanging
ideas) emotionally (e.g., positive or neutral emotional expres-
sions among all family members) and behaviorally (e.g., com-
plementary body language among family members). As a
subscale, these items displayed adequate internal consistency
Lecturing consisted of four items and represented the parents’
cautioning and warning about the negative consequences of
dating and sex that was done in a harsh and/or demeaning tone.
Thus, lecturing was coded when attempts were made by the
parent to belittle or disempower the adolescent and his/her
opinions (e.g., “.does the parent treat the child as if his/her
A.A. Rogers et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 57 (2015) 174e178 175
opinion did not matter?”). As a subscale, these four items dis-
played adequate internal consistency (
Teaching consisted of four items representing the direct
communication about positive and/or negative issues around
dating and sex, done in a positive or neutral tone. The key dif-
ference between teaching and lecturing was that teaching was
characterized by a spirit of education and/or instruction and was
absent of a demeaning or belittling tone (e.g., “Does the parent
explain/clarify positive emotional aspects of relationships?”and
“Does the parent explain the risks of sexual activity?”). These
four items together displayed adequate internal consistency
When both parents were present for the conversation,
mothers’and fathers’scores were averaged, as a one-way
multivariate analysis of variance revealed no signiﬁcant mean
differences between mothers and fathers on reciprocity,lecturing,
or teaching;F(3, 70) ¼.61, p¼.61.
Sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse was the dependent variable
and was measured with a single item assessing whether ado-
lescents had ever had sexual intercourse (0 ¼No,1¼Yes).
Control variables. Parental monitoring was included as a control
variable because of its documented association with adolescent
sexual behavior. Parents reported the frequency of their moni-
toring with eight items (e.g., “How often do you know what your
child does during his/her free time?”) scored on a ﬁve-point scale
(1 ¼almost never,5¼almost always). This scale displayed
adequate internal consistency (
A composite variable of adolescents’and parents’reported
relationship quality was calculated. Adolescents reported on the
quality of their relationships with each parent by indicating their
level of agreement on nine items (e.g., I feel close to my mom/
dad), each scored on a ﬁve-point scale (1 ¼strongly disagree,
5¼strongly agree). Item scores were averaged for a total score,
and adolescents’total scores for their mothers and fathers were
averaged for an overall adolescent-reported relationship quality
¼.93). Parents reported on the closeness of their
relationships with their adolescent on a single item with a
10-point scale (1 ¼distant,10¼close). Adolescent- and parent-
reported scores were strongly correlated, r¼.77, and were
standardized and summed to create our overall relationship
quality composite score.
Finally, we assessed percentage of time spent discussing dating/
sex during the videotaped conversations (e.g., “What percentage
of the time does the family discuss dating and sex?”). This single
item was coded on a scale of 0e10 and displayed adequate
interrater reliability (ICC ¼.73).
Demographic variables. Demographic characteristics of the
adolescent included age (in months), ethnicity (African-American,
Asian American, European American, Hispanic/Latino/a, other),
and gender (0 ¼female, 1 ¼male). Parents reported on their gross
After calculating means (hereafter represented as M) and SDs,
we used independent samples ttests and Pearson chi-square
tests to compare adolescents who did and did not report hav-
ing had sexual intercourse on the communication dimensions
and on the control variables. We also conducted zero-order
correlations and independent samples ttests to examine the
associations among the communication dimensions and the
control variables. We then used hierarchical logistic regression
analyses to examine how the parenteadolescent communication
dimensions were associated with the likelihood that adolescents
reported having had sexual intercourse. In the ﬁrst step, we
controlled for parental monitoring and parenteadolescent rela-
tionship quality. We also controlled for time spent discussing
dating/sex, gross annual income, gender, age, and dummy codes
for ethnicity (white, Latino/a, and African-American), each
controlled for separately. In the second step, we entered the
parenteadolescent communication dimensions. In a ﬁnal step,
interactions between the communication factors and time spent
discussing dating/sex, income, gender, age, and ethnicity were
Means and SDs are presented in Table 2. Of the 55 adoles-
cents, 15 (27.3%) reported having had sexual intercourse. On
average, parents and adolescents discussed dating and sex for
about half of the taped conversation tasks (M¼5.00, SD ¼1.50).
Rotated pattern matrix with factor loadings for quality of communication about dating and sex
Item Pattern matrix
Reciprocity Lecturing Teaching
How behaviorally reciprocal is the family? 1.030 .207 .042
How emotionally reciprocal is the family? .852 .072 .008
How verbally reciprocal is the family? .741 .005 .011
How much does the family seem to agree during the discussion? .709 .184 .030
Does the parent lecture the child about the risks and dangers of romantic relationships? .056 .980 .077
While explaining issues surrounding relationships, does the parent treat the child as if his/her opinion did not matter? .046 .905 .044
Does the parent diminish the importance of romantic relationships? .074 .720 .219
Does the parent forbid the child from being involved in a romantic relationship? .044 .501 .122
Does the parent explain and/or clarify positive emotional aspects of relationships? .084 .009 .972
Does the parent discuss the beneﬁts of romantic relationships? .025 .092 .778
Does the parent explain the risks of sexual activity? .251 .265 .416
Does the parent explain how to employ relationship skills, how partners should treat each other, or how one should feel
in a relationship?
.079 .109 .413
Bolded loadings indicate the factor that the item loaded onto.
A.A. Rogers et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 57 (2015) 174e178176
These conversations about dating and sex displayed moderate
to high levels of reciprocity (M¼6.01, SD ¼1.74), with low levels
of both lecturing (M¼2.23, SD ¼1.53) and teaching (M¼2.08,
Independent samples ttests were also conducted to examine
differences between adolescents who did and did not have sex-
ual intercourse. Lecturing was higher for families of adolescents
who reported having had sexual intercourse (M¼3.44, SD ¼
1.99) versus families of adolescents who reported not having had
sexual intercourse (M¼1.77, SD ¼1.05); t(51) ¼13.88, p<.001.
Parental monitoring was lower for families of adolescents who
reported having had sexual intercourse (M¼3.36, SD ¼1.06)
versus families of adolescents who reported not having had
sexual intercourse (M¼4.32, SD ¼.52); t(51) ¼3.19, p<.01.
Pearson chi-square tests were then conducted to examine the
relations among demographic factors of ethnicity with sexual
intercourse. Results revealed a marginally signiﬁcant effect for
(1, N ¼53) ¼3.31, p¼.07, suggesting that
African-American adolescents were more likely to report having
had sexual intercourse than adolescents of other ethnic groups.
There were no signiﬁcant gender differences in sexual inter-
(1, N ¼53) ¼.58, p<.49.
Zero-order correlations were also computed to examine the
relations among the parenting dimensions and various controls.
Reciprocity and parental monitoring were negatively associated
with sexual intercourse, whereas lecturing was positively asso-
ciated with sexual behavior (see Table 2).
Quality of parenteadolescent communication. One-way analyses
of variance were conducted to examine group mean differences in
the communication dimensions and demographic factors of
ethnicity and gender. Results showed signiﬁcant group mean
differences in lecturing; F(3, 51) ¼5.72, p<.01. Follow-up com-
parisons showed that lecturing was higher among African-
American families (M¼3.75, SD ¼.48) than that in white
families (M¼1.57, SD ¼.28). There were no group differences in
reciprocity, F(3, 51) ¼.98, p¼.41, or teaching, F(3, 51) ¼.62,
p¼.60. Finally, results showed no signiﬁcant gender differences in
the communication dimensions of lecturing, F(1, 52) ¼.05, p¼.82;
reciprocity, F(1, 52) ¼1.77, p¼.19; or teaching, F(1, 52) ¼.53, p¼
.47. Thus, the prevalence of the three communication dimensions
did not differ signiﬁcantly when the child was a male or a female.
Logistic hierarchical regression
Finally, to test this study’s main hypotheses, a logistic hier-
archical regression analysis was performed to examine how the
parenteadolescent communication dimensions were associated
with the likelihood that adolescents reported having had sexual
intercourse. After controlling for parental monitoring, relation-
ship quality, age, gender, ethnicity, annual income, and time
spent discussing dating and sex, results of the logistic regression
showed that lecturing predicted adolescents’sexual intercourse,
¼1.86, p<.05 (see Table 2 for ﬁnal model). The stronger
presence of parents’lecturing during conversations about dating
and sex increased the likelihood that adolescents reported hav-
ing had sexual intercourse by 86%. Interactions with time spent
discussing dating/sex, income, gender, age, and ethnicity were
This study examined the associations among the quality of
parenteadolescent communication about dating and sex and
adolescents’engagement in sexual intercourse. Findings showed
that communication about dating and sex characterized by
lecturing was associated with an increased likelihood of sexual
intercourse. Speciﬁcally, parents who lectured their adolescents
during conversations about dating and sex were more likely to
have children who reported engaging in sexual intercourse.
Notably, this association emerged despite the relatively low
presence of lecturing in these conversations. One interpretation
of these ﬁndings is that lecturing adolescents about dating and
sex may effectively increase adolescents’chances of engaging in
sexual intercourse because they may be less likely to internalize
messages about sexuality that are delivered in a harsh manner.
Descriptive statistics for the key variables and ﬁnal logistic regression model
Variables Correlations among communication factors and controls Final logistic regression
model predicting sexual
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)
(1) Reciprocity d.10 .28 .90
(2) Lecturing/belittling .41
d.62 .30 1.86
(3) Teaching controls .16 .09 d.55 .39 1.74
(4) Parental monitoring .44
.08 d.80 .62 .45
(5) Relationship quality .13 .03 .04 .34
(6) Time discussing sex .08 .38
.13 .18 .17 d
(7) Age .04 .10 .05 .01 .15 .07 d
(8) Annual income .08 .29
.01 .15 .03 .03 .11 d
(11) Ethnicity: African-American .74 .96 2.09
(12) Ethnicity: white
(13) Ethnicity: Latino
Mean 6.01 2.23 2.08 4.14 .00 5.00 15.8
Standard deviation 1.74 1.53 .96 .77 1.54 1.50 .59
Controls included in the ﬁnal model are those that were related to sexual intercourse in descriptive analyses. These include parental monitoring and the dummy code for
SE ¼standard error.
*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001.
A.A. Rogers et al. / Journal of Adolescent Health 57 (2015) 174e178 177
This explanation is consistent with previous work on paren-
techild communication about other sensitive topics. During
conversations about AIDS, mothers’conversational dominance
was associated with lower levels of adolescents’AIDS knowledge
[7,8], and during conversations about problem behaviors, care-
givers’use of criticism and contempt was associated with greater
problem behavior over time .
An alternative explanation is that adolescents’sexual activity
may elicit harsher parenting around sex. Although parents’
knowledge was not readily detectable through our observations,
it is possible that adolescents’previous sexual activity may be
known by some of the parents in our sample, which for certain
families could be a source of continuing parenteadolescent con-
ﬂict. In such cases, the presence of lecturing during these con-
versations may simply be a reﬂection of this continuing conﬂict.
Previous work has found that some parents are expressly
uncomfortable about accepting their adolescents’developing
sexuality, which may manifest in less mutual conversations about
sex . For these kinds of parents, learning about their adoles-
cents’sexual activity may result in deliberate attempts to control
and restrict their adolescents’sexual behaviors.
Regarding high quality communication about dating and sex,
our results showed that neither reciprocity nor teaching was
associated with adolescents’likelihood of having had sexual in-
tercourse. Previous work shows that high-quality communica-
tion about sex is associated with adolescents’diminished sexual
risk taking [4,5]. In this study, we examined engagement in
sexual intercourse; it is possible that an association would
emerge had we examined sexual risk behaviors. Future work
would do well to examine the associations among quality of
parenteadolescent communication about dating and sex and
adolescents’engagement in risky sexual behaviors.
Some caution should be exercised when interpreting these
results. First, our data are cross-sectional and cannot test the
directionality of the association between quality of communi-
cation and sexual intercourse. Whether lecturing predicts sexual
intercourse, sexual intercourse predicts lecturing, or both, can be
better estimated using longitudinal data. Second, our sample was
not large enough to allow for highly reliable multiple group
comparisons (i.e., across ethnicity) on the communication
dimensions and on the dependent variable, sexual intercourse.
Finally, we observed communication about dating and sex in a
single laboratory setting in which parents and adolescents were
prompted to discuss these issues. Thus, these conversations may
not fully capture families’naturally occurring (or nonoccurring)
communication processes about these topics.
Despite these limitations, our ﬁndings contribute to
broader literature and practice by showing that the quality of
parenteadolescent communication about dating and sex may be
a unique correlate of adolescent sexual behavior. Speciﬁcally, the
quality of parenteadolescent communication about dating and
sex was associated with adolescent sexual intercourse after
controlling for general parenting variables, including parental
monitoring and relationship quality, both of which are known
correlates of adolescent sexual behavior. As such, these ﬁndings
encourage more research on the quality parenteadolescent
communication about dating and sex in adolescents’sexual
health. Our ﬁndings also suggest that the quality of
parenteadolescent communication may be an effective target for
existing family-based interventions aiming to foster adolescent
sexual health. Finally, our ﬁndings are of value to teachers, youth
workers, and health care professionals who also communicate
with adolescents regarding their sexual health.
The authors acknowledge the contribution of the Portland
Public Schools, the Project Alliance staff, and participating youth
and families. Partial support for this research was also provided
by the Oregon Child and Family Center (http://cfc.uoregon.edu)
and the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics
as part of the Lives of Teens Enterprise (https://thesanfordschool.
asu.edu/lives). The authors would like to acknowledge the efforts
of staff members and students who contributed to this research,
including Jenene Peterson, Charlotte Winter, Allison Caruthers,
and Adelaide Dale.
This research was supported by the National Institute on Drug
Abuse Grant DA018374 to E.A.S.
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