Over the past decades, social scientists have conducted research to understand why young people engage in voluntary (not coerced) sexual behaviours, because sexual activity among young people is often impulsive and unplanned, and can lead to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The results from research throughout the years show the reasons young people engage in risky sexual behaviours are a lack of parents in the home, living in single parent homes, parental substance use, poverty, lack of parental monitoring and poor parental communication, among others.
It’s important to understand the role of each parent when it comes to the choices their children make, because the data shows that about half of high school youth are sexually experienced. However, much of the focus of scientific study has been on the mother, so the role of fathers in shaping adolescent sexual behaviours has not received a lot of attention.
Talking to Dad
In 2012, a review was published in professional literature on a father’s influence on adolescent sexual risk taking.* The most consistent finding across all of the articles that were reviewed was a significant association between father-adolescent communication and sexual behaviours, including abstinence.
The report suggested that more positive relationship qualities, including a high emotional quality to the father-child relationship and a greater involvement of the father in the lives of the adolescents, were associated with decreased adolescent sexual risk taking.
These findings are consistent with research that we performed almost a decade ago on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, where we surveyed high school students about drug use, sex and other risky behaviours.
We asked the students to rate their satisfaction with their relationships with their parents, both mother and father, on a scale ranging from very bad to very good.
We found that when they rated their relationships with their fathers (we also measured their satisfaction with their mothers) as “very good” and they stated that their fathers had talked to them about sex, those students had very low rates of sexual intercourse during their high school years.
In other words, a great relationship with the father, together with communication about sex by the father, was highly effective.
The comprehensive review also reported that moderate parental strictness is associated with delayed sexual activity. However, both lenient and overly restrictive paternal strictness were associated with earlier sexual activity.
Decreased sexual risk taking is also associated with parental monitoring when the teens are aware that they are being monitored. So you might want to be able to say Yes to the questions, Do you know where your kids are? and, Do your kids know that you know where they are?
Another area of importance was whether teens were aware that the father disapproved of their engagement in sex during their adolescent years.
Had the father clearly stated his disapproval and had that message been understood? When the teens were aware of their fathers’ disapproval of them engaging in sex, they were less likely to become experienced sexually.
As a result of their study, the authors felt that the preliminary evidence suggests that fathers independently shape the sexual behaviour of their adolescent children.
Following are some ways in which fathers can take the lead role in establishing strategies that are known to delay sexual activity in adolescents (note that the mother remains vital in all of these strategies as well).
Research reveals that families who engage in at least three family meals per week have kids who get better grades in school, smoke less, use less alcohol, use marijuana less and delay sex, among many other benefits.
Fathers can take a lead role by being at the head of the table during these meals. It does not need to be always, but it has to be a substantial proportion of the time. Guide the discussion and the fun at the table during the meal. In doing so, try to avoid discussing the trials of the day. Instead, focus on positive topics.
A good thing to do would be to turn off the television and the smart phones and enjoy a meal with happy discussion and without distractions. Make it a time of day that the kids look forward to.
Another area of importance in preventing teen pregnancy is that of community service. Teens who engage in acts of helping others are at a lower risk of getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant. According to the Best Practices in Teen Pregnancy Prevention Practitioner Handbook, service is, in fact, one of the 10 “best practices" in preventing teen pregnancy. This is an area where fathers, grandfathers and trusted non-family adults can play an important role.
Consider taking your kids out with you to rake the leaves in the yards of older people and people who are disabled or for some other reason cannot do that level of physical work themselves. You might also hope that, while you are raking the leaves, with your daughter or granddaughter doing the same next to you, a neighbour might call out and ask what inspired you to be so helpful. The answer would be to tell them that you’re preventing teen pregnancy! This would probably draw a laugh, but the fact is that you and the teens are indeed involved in an activity that is one of the best ways to prevent teen pregnancy.
Teens who engage in community service also get better grades in school, which is also associated with less teen pregnancy.
While understanding that communication regarding sexual behaviours is effective, deciding when to talk to teens about such sensitive topics can be problematic, especially when the father and the teens don’t talk very much. Even worse, the emergence of electronic devices is interrupting the limited time that fathers do have to talk to their kids.
How many of us have been in restaurants and noticed families in which the kids have their attention focused on their electronic devices while there is either minimal or an absolute lack of communication between them and their parents? And such scenarios aren’t unique to restaurants. At home, kids often spend huge amounts of time on computers, mobile phones, tablets and other electronic devices or watching TV. All of this can distract from opportunities to communicate.
One strategy to deal with this problem is to make some basic mobile phone rules. For example, everyone turns off their mobile phone during meals and while riding in the car together. Try getting a small basket into which everyone who’s travelling in the car can place their mobile phone. This can become a regular routine.
Parents can even make this into something fun by taking the basket into restaurants, filling it with phones and likely generating questions from other patrons. You may want to make a rule that mobile phones are to be used at home only between certain hours and otherwise are to be turned off.
Don’t let electronic devices come between parental opportunities to communicate with teens.
There’s a lot to be done in assisting teens to navigate their younger years and to avoid risky behaviours, including sex. The good news is that the things that need to be done for this to happen are simple to understand. We need to start off with great trusting relationships and include in that process very clear communication while unambiguously describing our expectations. Spend time with your kids; engage with them in activities that are helpful to others. These recommendations are for fathers, but are also relevant for mothers and other significant adults.
Straties To Prevent Risk-Taking In Children
- Have an open line of communication with you children. Don't be afraid to speak with them about sex.
- Get involved in your children's lives
- Find a balance in how strict you are with your children
- Know where you children are - and let them know that you know.
- Make sure your children are aware of your disapproval of their engagement in sex during their adolescent years.