Q&A: Helping Dads See Their Positive Impact on Teens' Sexual Health

A Latino father outdoors with his son.

When it comes to who most influences teens’ decisions about sex, a growing body of research says parents are No. 1.

Multiple studies have specifically examined mothers’ influence on teen risk behaviors, such as having sex at an early age or not using contraceptives. Fewer studies have attempted to tease out the role of dads, says Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, professor of social work and global public health at New York University and co-director of The Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health.

Guilamo-Ramos and his colleagues have set out to learn more about the impact fathers have on their children’s sexual health. We talked to him about his research and the idea that, as he puts it, “fathers matter” when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

NCFY: What have you learned about the influence dads have on teens’ sexual health and behavior? What do dads do, or not do, that makes a difference positively or negatively?

Guilamo-Ramos: Both mothers and fathers contribute to teen's decisions about sex. But increasingly, there’s recognition that fathers have a unique influence. It’s not the case that what fathers do is the same as what moms do. It’s different.

When we have focused on fathers, there’s been a lot of focus on what I would call structural factors: whether or not the father is in the home and or whether or not the father is economically supporting his child.

Those things are important. But there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve learned that is, I think, really exciting and that is particularly important given that many fathers of color may be underemployed or they may be unemployed.

Fathers can shape important outcomes through three basic mechanisms. One, through their communication with their adolescent children. So we know that the kinds of communication fathers have with their adolescent children matter, that it can shape their decision making.

We also know that fathers can monitor and supervise, and that they can play an important role in providing some structure in their teen’s life—in particular by setting clear expectations, following up to make sure the expectations are being adhered to, and then being consistent in terms of mutually agreed upon consequences.

Fathers also [play a role] through their relationship with their teens, through their teens perceiving them as being involved, the teen seeing some level of responsiveness--“Dad is available when I need him”--and the teen feeling some level of closeness or warmth and feeling that dad really loves me, cares about me.

NCFY: How is paternal influence different than that of moms or other adults in young people’s lives?

Guilamo-Ramos: We’re still learning more about that. What we can say is, clearly, when it comes to whether a teen becomes sexually active, fathers matter independent of maternal influence.

When fathers communicate [with their teens] about disapproval of too-early sexually active behavior, that they expect them to protect themselves and have plans for avoiding STIs or STDs. When fathers are involved in setting expectations about common goals for the future, about doing well and staying in school. When fathers are also clear about rules. Those are some of the ways that fathers matter.

NCFY: What can youth workers do to help dads have a positive influence on their kids’ sexual health?

Guilamo-Ramos: The first thing is for youth workers to involve fathers and to see fathers as having something that is unique and in addition to--not in lieu of--the mom. Engaging fathers, letting them know they play an important role, and letting dads know that even if they are not able to provide in ways that traditionally their role has been defined. If they’re not able to maintain that relationship with their child’s mom for whatever reason, if they’re not able to provide the level of economic support that they would like to provide or that is needed, they still can play an important role in the teen’s life. Through talking to their teens and being involved in their teens’ lives, they can actually help their teens to grow up and avoid problem behavior.

Find resources for parents on The Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health website.

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