How Does Talking to Extended Family Influence Teens' Decisions About Sex?

A young woman poses with her grandmother.

The Role of Extended Family in Teen Sexual Health” (abstract). Jennifer M. Grossman, Allison J. Tracy, Amanda M. Richer, and Sumru Erkut. Journal of Adolescent Research, Vol. 30, No. 1 (2015).

What it’s about: Grossman, Tracy, Richer and Erkut wondered whether communicating with extended family affected teen sexual behavior. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know why teens talk with extended family members about sex, and what aspects of sexual behavior and health they discussed. They surveyed 1,492 eighth-grade students from 24 middle schools in Eastern Massachusetts to find out. Thirty-two of those students also participated in more detailed interviews. The sample group was 53% female and on average, 14 years old.

Why read it: According to the authors, many young people rely on extended family members and non-relatives such as godparents and family friends for emotional support. Despite this reality, prior research about the effects of communication on teen sexual behavior has focused primarily on parent-child interactions. This study explores the influence of conversations with non-parental kin such as stepparents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as non-relatives.

Biggest takeaways from the research:  Almost 60% of teens in the study had talked with extended family members about topics related to dating and relationships, having sex, teen pregnancy and parenthood, protection methods (usually condoms), and homosexuality. Extended family members were less likely to tell youth what to do or to show disapproval, participants said, than their parents. According to the study results, youth who said they talked exclusively to extended family members about sex also said they were more than twice as likely to have had sex than the other participants.

Grossman and her colleagues note past research indicating that less than half of teens report discussing sex and birth control with their parents. In light of that finding, they suggest that teen pregnancy prevention programs incorporate information and activities to help young people talk with extended family members. Similarly, extended family members can benefit from access to accurate information about sex, contraception, and sexual health issues to share with youth during future conversations.

Additional references: Learn more about adolescent pregnancy prevention and family communication in our digital library.

Read about the specific influence fathers can have on teen sexual health.

Access other materials designed to help parents talk to teens about sex, which may be useful for extended family members and other sources of support.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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