Communication about sexuality between parent & adolescent

Young people today have the opportunity to consume information in different ways: friends, television, books, but mainly the Internet is used. If this information relates to sex, education and sexuality, then young people have a range of information sources.
Sex has become an indispensable part of our Western societies; we are confronted with it every day by seeing films, images, advertisements or internet sites. It is therefore not difficult for young people to delve deeper into their own sexuality during puberty.

However, what about parents as a source of information? Parents play an important and central role in the development of the child. The family is the most important frame of reference for the child’s personal development. Parents are educators and should teach their children norms, values and social skills. They are also an example for their children, not only because children learn skills and knowledge from their parents, they also adopt behavior from them. Another part of education is sex education and parents convey their sexual values and norms to their son and daughter as they begin to develop sexually. Communication between parent and child is important here (van Lee 2005: 8). When and which topics are discussed? And what is the communication style, is sexuality openly and positively discussed or not? Do parents warn their teenagers about sexual dangers such as HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, the well-known STDs?

The most important question asked here is to what extent there is a difference in communication about sexuality between parents and adolescents , and to what extent this influences the sexual behavior of the boy or girl. By difference in communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent I mean the differences in what is discussed with the son or with the daughter and which parent is the informant.

Sexual education and attitudes from the 1950s

Sexuality has been around since the beginning of humanity. The concept or theme therefore has many meanings. It is an expression of love between a man and a woman, or purely based on lust. It is a matter of reproduction, social relationship, ethics, happiness or despair. However, the meaning one attaches to it depends on the context. It varies per time, per society, per individual. How people think about sexuality now is different from how people thought about it fifty years ago. This has to do with cultural and social developments.

The sexuality of young people and the associated sexual education has become what you might call freer. Almost all young people now have the freedom to decide for themselves when they have their first sexual intercourse and with whom. I actually believe that getting here is a bad thing. You could say better, they take the liberty, because I don’t think all parents support the decisions regarding their son or daughter’s sexual activities. Young people know the options available to them and try them out. Sexual education of young people is now a matter of guidance, information and assistance for parents. In the 1950s this was the opposite.

In sexual education around 1950, the focus was on preventing young people from engaging in sexual activities before they got married. Sex before marriage was therefore taboo. The idea was that the biological urges of young people, which emerged during puberty, had to be controlled. That is why the parents ensured that contact between boys and girls was minimal. Children were hardly informed by their parents about sexuality. The communication about sexuality as it exists today did not exist then.

Twenty years later, a change in sexual attitudes could already be seen. Boys and girls could get along more, but this always had a goal in mind: finding a good marriage partner. Having sex before marriage was more accepted if there were wedding plans. Nowadays there is more communication about sexuality between parents and child. Yet openness about this remained limited. Providing information about contraception was not seen as encouraging sex, but talking positively about sex was.

The idea of no sex before marriage had all but disappeared by the 1980s. Parents began to allow their children more and more freedom in their choices and in their sexual activities. However, the striking thing is that this fact was not accompanied by more open communication about sexuality. Parents still more or less avoid the subject. This change occurred in the 1990s when parents had more control over what their adolescent did and with whom. They allow their children freedom in their choices, but also ensure that they do it safely. Parents realize the importance of communication about sexuality and like to know what their son or daughter is doing (de Graaf 2007: 3).

Communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent

The extent to which parents talk to their son or daughter about sexuality depends on the relationship between them. If communication runs smoothly within the family, it is usually easier to talk about topics such as sex and sexuality. This is what Telidja Klaí suggests in her research called Intergenerational research into communication about sexuality: a study with parents and young people aged 15 to 21 (Klaí 2005). What plays a role in this is not only the relationships between family members, but also the individual characteristics of the parents themselves. Sex education is something that parents can give their own interpretation to, in the sense that they can determine what to discuss and what not to discuss.

Sexual education therefore has two characteristics: the sexual views of the parents themselves and the transmission of these views to the children (de Gr aaf 2007: 21). This communication between parent and adolescent is characterized by the content and process of the communication (van Lee 2005: 24). This includes the how and what of communication: which topics are discussed and how is the message or information conveyed?

Various studies have shown that the topics discussed during communication about sexuality often relate to menstruation, pregnancy, birth, reproduction , HIV, STDs, contraception and sexual norms and values. On the other hand, there are also topics that are minimally discussed, such as masturbation, abortion and wet dreams (van Lee 2005: 11). The latter is not very strange, because I think these topics are still taboo and are not yet fully socially accepted by most people.

In addition to topics about sexuality, communication style is important. The style used by parents when talking to their son or daughter influences the young person’s sexual behavior later, but it also has an effect on how the information is conveyed. Research has shown that the best way to do this is to have an open and involved conversation, but also to keep a certain distance so as not to become interfering (van Lee 2005: 14).

Communication about sexuality does not always occur equally between the four gender pairs of mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter and father-son. Almost all studies on parent-adolescent communication have shown that mothers talk about sexuality with their son or daughter more often than fathers do. One reason given for this is that fathers, from their traditional role, cannot easily act as a person to have intimate conversations with (van Lee 2005: 17). Based on the results of a cross-sectional study into communication about sexuality among young people living in the United States (Dutra et al. 1999), it was concluded that mothers even play a central role in sexual education compared to fathers. This fact is not very surprising, because in a two-parent family the mother often has the largest role in the entire upbringing. However, the case is that this study, as well as many other studies into parent-adolescent communication about sexuality, focus on the traditional two-parent family. I believe that these studies are no longer properly representative, because there are many single-parent families today. Young people from these families have only one parent to rely on for information. And don’t forget the young people with gay parents. So the proven role of the mother as the most important informant for sex education no longer always applies.

Another difference in communication is in the content of the conversations. Mothers discuss a wide range of topics regarding sexuality. They provide both factual information and advice. Relationships and being in love are discussed, but there is also talk about contraceptives, venereal diseases, homosexuality, male-female relationships. While fathers are more concerned with values, beliefs and the relational aspects of sexuality (Klaí 2005). Fathers therefore play a different role in communicating about sexuality with mothers. As mentioned earlier, mothers are often the most important informant, but also have the most supportive role. They guide adolescents more in their sexual development and fathers are often approached if there are personal problems (Dutra 1999: 65).

So you see a significant difference between the role that parents play in communicating about sexuality with adolescents. A similar difference can also be found among young people themselves. Telidja Klaí’s research shows that parents have more conversations about sexuality with their daughters compared to their sons (Klaí 2005). I think this has to do with the parents’ control over their child. I think boys are more likely to be seen as independent than girls. Girls are therefore often raised in a more protected manner. With sexual development in mind, I think that the physical issue plays a role in this. Girls start menstruating and are therefore fertile. It is precisely the risk of becoming pregnant that is important, but also the vulnerability of the girl herself. Perhaps this is a reason for parents to guide their daughter more in her sexual development and to inform her more often.
This has been seen from the parents’ side, but daughters themselves use parents more as a source of information than boys do (Klaí 2005). This also probably has to do with the fact that girls are raised in a protected manner from an early age. Partly for this reason, they are less independent in life during adolescence than boys and may therefore be more likely to call on their parents when they want to know things, have questions or are unsure.

The influence of communication about sexuality on adolescent sexual behavior

Parents therefore communicate with their children about sexuality to varying degrees and inform them in different ways. A number of studies have shown that the more communication between parent and adolescent results in more sexual experiences (de Graaf 2007: 21). This means that when a young person talks a lot about sexuality with his father or mother, he or she gains experience with sexual intercourse sooner and has sex more often than young people who talk less about sex with their parents.

Although this sounds very logical, you could call communication a form of sexual stimulation, there are also studies that show the opposite . One of these studies was a study of fifteen and sixteen year old young people (Moore et al. 1986: 781). This study showed that when girls talk a lot about sexuality with their parents, they are actually less sexually active. It may be that it is not the content of the communication that plays a role, but the process. Apparently there is talk about all kinds of topics between parent and daughter, but the way in which this is conveyed to the daughter may have an influence on sexual behavior, in the sense that the girl is not stimulated, but rather indirectly protected from having sex. The striking thing in this study is that boys, on the other hand, do show sexual behavior the more they communicate with their parents about sexuality.

The above shows the relationship between communication about sexuality and the sexual behavior of young people. So the influence that communication has on when young people have sex for the first time and how often they do it. However, you can also talk about sexual risk behavior of young people, which means safe sex. Are young people more likely to use contraception if they talk a lot about sex with their parents? Here too there are some contradictions, although the connections between communication about sexuality and the protective behavior of young people are a lot clearer. Most studies into this showed that young people protect themselves well against STDs and pregnancy if they often talk about sex with their parents. One reason given for this is that these are topics that are often discussed during communication (de Graaf 2007: 22). I think this is correct, because I think most parents find it worse if their daughter gets pregnant or their son gets someone pregnant or contracts an STD than, for example, having many different sex partners.

Parents therefore have what they call a positive effect on their children if they do not show sexual risk behavior as a result of the sexual education provided. Many studies had this as a result. Among other things, a strong connection was found in a study that when communication about sexuality was open and receptive between mother and adolescent, there was less sexual risk behavior on the part of both the boy and the girl (Dutra et al. 1999: 65). However, the connection found here only relates to the mother and not to the father. Another study indicated that when both parents are open to their son or daughter’s sexual activity, they are less likely to exhibit risky behavior (Baker et al. 1988: 279). In contrast

, a study called Parenting Processes Related to Sexual Risk-Taking Behaviors of Adolescent Males and Females (Rodgers 1999: 106) produced an unexpected result. One of the hypotheses that was formulated was that young people who are sexually active and communicate a lot with their parents about sexuality are more likely to use contraception than young people who do not or only rarely. The result was that boys do show sexual risk behavior when there is a lot of talk about sex. This connection was not found for girls.

So if you look at the influence of communication about sexuality on the sexual (risk) behavior of adolescents, you see contradictory findings. I don’t think this is very strange, because I don’t think the relationship is easy to measure. The studies that have investigated this take a sample: a group of girls and boys who are asked a number of questions relating to how often and about what they communicate with their parents in terms of sexuality, followed by questions about how they behave sexually. . However, it remains an individual matter. Parents always have a certain influence on their children, even during sex education. But what is this influence? That is different and personal and can also have its own effect. Parents may want to convey certain norms or values to their children in the hope that they will be adhered to, but the desired effect is not always achieved. Young people may react differently than intended. The same is true with communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent. A parent can give their son or daughter sex education with a specific intention, for example with the hope that he or she will delay the first intercourse or that they always use a condom. But it is always up to the adolescent himself to deal with the information given and to interpret it himself.

The studies also talk a lot about the positive effect of communication between parent and adolescent on sexual behavior. What is positive? Is it positive that when parents talk a lot about sex with their daughter or son, he or she quickly and often becomes sexually active? Or is it positive that when parents pay a lot of attention to sex education, the young person waits before having sexual intercourse or always does it safely? The communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent is always a positive sign, I believe that sex education is one of the most important tasks of parenthood, but the desired effect always leaves its question marks.


The main conclusion of Talidja Klaí’s doctoral dissertation was that parents are only sixth as a source of information about sexuality and that young people therefore initially obtain their information outside the family. It is surprising, but it makes sense when you look at the many options young people have to find information about sexuality.

Even though parents are in sixth place, this does not mean that they no longer have an important role in sex education. Sexual education begins early, when children begin to develop sexually. Parents are the main informant at that time, after which young people only later obtain their knowledge from other sources. This paper therefore looked at what communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent entails, where the differences lie, and what influence it has on the later sexual behavior of young people.

Parents themselves used to have a strict upbringing and received limited sex education from their parents. T he sexual education they now give to their own children is different from that which they received. Parents realize the dangers of sex today, but also the pleasure that can be derived from it, and therefore try to guide their children in this as best as possible. This is often the task of the mother, she invests more time in sexual education than the father. This is also reflected in the many topics discussed by mothers. Girls also communicate more about sexuality than boys, but they are often more likely to turn to their parents for advice and information.

Communication about sexuality between parent and adolescent always has a certain influence on the sexual (risky ) behavior that young people show. A lot of research has been done into this, but consistent results have not always been achieved. When there is a lot of open talk about sexuality, this means that young people will have sex quickly and often and will also do it safely. Many studies concluded this fact and it also sounds very correct. If young people receive extensive information about sexuality from their parents, get answers to their questions, and are protected from the dangers of sex, this could indeed result in early coitus and responsible use of contraception. But this does not apply to every adolescent. When a boy or girl receives sex education, it is up to the individual to interpret this. Parents can have the best interests of their children, but it is often the case that the information given to young people goes in one ear and out the other.

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