Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Family Planning Perspectives
Volume 32, Number 4, July/August 2000

Has There Been a Talk About Sex? Teenagers and Their Mothers Often Disagree

Nine in 10 women surveyed in Philadelphia said that they had talked to their teenage son or daughter about sex, but only two-thirds of the young people agreed. The likelihood that a teenager would report having had such a discussion was reduced if the mother had reservations about talking to her child about sex--particularly if she was concerned that her child would think she was prying or would not want to hear what she had to say. Different factors, however, affected a mother's likelihood of reporting communication with her teenager about sex; embarrassment about discussing the subject and fearing that her child would not take her seriously exerted the strongest influence.1

The survey was conducted among 751 randomly selected unmarried black 14-17-year-olds and their mothers (or, in some instances, another female caregiver with whom the adolescent lived). Using a self-administered questionnaire, young people and their mothers reported on their background characteristics and their level of agreement with a variety of statements reflecting their satisfaction with their relationship, their degree of communication about sex and their concerns about discussing sex. Researchers conducted correlational and regression analyses to assess, from both the mothers' and the teenagers' perspectives, the factors that hamper parent-child communication about sex.

Teenage participants were 15 years old, on average; 94% were in school. Among mothers, the average age was 40, the median family income was $16,000 per year and 44% worked full-time. Half of mothers had no more than a high school education, and only one-third were married and living with their husband.

More than 90% of mothers said that parents should begin talking to their children about sex when their children are 14 or younger. In all, 88% agreed with the statement "I have talked with my teen about sex": Seventy-three percent agreed strongly, and 15% moderately. Despite this self-reported openness on the mothers' part, however, only 66% of young people agreed--46% strongly and 20% moderately--that such communication had taken place. In a series of correlational and regression analyses, the investigators found that the more satisfied teenagers were with their relationship with their mother, the more likely both the parent and the young person were to say that they had discussed sex.

Mothers' Perspectives

To explore mothers' reservations about talking to their teenagers about sex, the survey asked their level of agreement with 21 statements regarding their ability to explain matters, whether their child would cooperate, the potential efficacy of a discussion on this topic, logistical constraints and their fear that broaching the topic would encourage the adolescent to have sex. The most prevalent reservations (with levels of agreement reaching 24-25%) were that a discussion about sex would embarrass the teenager and that the teenager might ask a question that the mother could not answer. Concerns that their child would think they were prying, would not take them seriously and would not be honest were mothers' next most common reservations (15-18%). Mothers were least likely to be concerned that it would be difficult to find the time for a conversation about sex, that their child would ask them too many personal questions and that the discussion would spark an argument (7% each).

Results of correlational analyses indicate that a mother's reservations about discussing sex with her child were generally associated with a lower likelihood of the teenager's reporting such a discussion. Sixteen of the 21 measures were significantly correlated with the teenager's report of communication about sex, but most of the correlations were small. The mother's fears that her child would consider her nosy and that the teenager would not want to hear what she had to say had the strongest effects (coefficients, -.17 and -.16, respectively). All 21 measures, by contrast, were significantly correlated with mothers' perceptions of communication about sex, and the effects were greater. The factors with the largest impacts were being embarrassed (.25) and being concerned that the adolescent would not take her seriously (-.26).

The researchers conducted a series of moderated multiple regression analyses to assess whether the effect of mothers' reservations on the degree of communication about sex was related to the adolescent's age or gender. These analyses revealed that as adolescents aged, mothers' concerns about being embarrassed had a diminishing effect on young people's reporting of sexual communication, and their concerns about not being taken seriously had an increasing effect. As for mothers' reports of discussions about sex, concerns had a greater impact if a son rather than a daughter was involved.

Teenagers' Perspectives

Teenagers were asked about 16 concerns, largely mirroring the statements presented to the mothers, that might prevent them from discussing sex with their mother. Those with which they most commonly (35-40%) agreed were that they would be embarrassed, they knew what they needed to about the subject, their mother would be suspicious if they wanted to have such a talk and their mother would ask too many personal questions. Teenagers were unlikely to be concerned that a discussion about sex would anger their mother or cause an argument, or that their mother did not know enough or was too old to be able to relate to them about sex (6-9%).

All 16 concerns were significantly correlated with the likelihood that a teenager reported having discussed sex with his or her mother, and the effects were sizable (coefficients ranged from -.11 to -.26). All but five of these concerns were significantly correlated with mothers' reporting of communication, although the effects were smaller (coefficients ranged from -.08 to -.14).

Results of regression analyses showed that the impacts of two reservations--teenagers' concern that discussing sex would lead to an argument and that their mother would lecture them on the subject--declined as adolescents aged. In addition, the influence of young people's concern that they would have difficulty speaking honestly with their mother decreased with age, but more so for young women than young men. The belief that their mother would be embarrassed by a conversation about sex had a growing impact on mothers' reports of communication as female adolescents aged and a declining effect as males grew older.


While noting that the homogeneity of the sample and methodological issues limit the generalizability of their findings, the researchers conclude that the data have implications for efforts to encourage parents to talk to their teenage children about sex, unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. For example, they say, educational programs should aim to increase both parents' knowledge about these topics and their skills and level of comfort in talking about them. Among the implications for future research, the investigators add, the study points up the need for further exploration of the differences between mothers' and teenagers' perspectives on communication about sex.--D. Hollander


1. Jaccard J, Dittus PJ and Gordon VV, Parent-teen communication about premarital sex: factors associated with the extent of communication, Journal of Adolescent Research, 2000, 15(2):187-208.