What Characteristics of Latino Parents Affect Their Communication with Teens About Sexual Health?

A teenager with her parents.

¿Confías en mí? The Impact of Latino Parent Characteristics on Discussions With Their Adolescent About Sexual Health and Pregnancy Prevention,” (abstract). Lourdes M. Martinez and Pamela Orpinas. SAGE Open. Vol. 6, No. 1 (2016).

What it’s about: Researchers Martinez and Orpinas wanted to understand how the overall quality of communication between Latino parents and their adolescent children affects their conversations about sexually-related matters such as how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. In order to assess this dynamic, the authors surveyed parents and their adolescent children separately, asking youth for their perceptions of the parents’ expertise, trustworthiness, and accessibility and parents for their perceptions of the degree to which they embody these characteristics. The study included 21 parent-adolescent pairs recruited from a community clinic that predominantly served low-income, at-risk clients who sought help for mental health and substance use problems. Most of the parents were mothers, and the youth ranged in age from 12 to 17.

Why read it: We know that while teen birth rates have been falling overall, they still remain higher among minority populations like Latino youth. This study focuses on one aspect that may impact the Latino teen birth rate—communication. In past studies Latino youth have demonstrated a lack of knowledge about sexual health, and this is primarily due to the fact that they did not discuss the topic at home, the authors say. If communication did take place, and a parent offered inaccurate information (such as warning a daughter about birth control pill side effects that do not exist), Latino children were more vulnerable to sexual risk, Martinez and Orpinas add.

Readers of this study will discover the parental characteristics that support strong communication between parents and adolescents, and can in turn empower youth to make more informed decisions about sexual relationships and pregnancy prevention.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Parents perceived themselves to have somewhat higher levels of expertise and trustworthiness compared to their children’s perceptions, the authors found. In contrast, adolescents perceived their parents as more accessible than the parents perceived themselves to be.

Also, interview and survey data showed that despite parents' communication with their children about sexual health, the scope and level of detail weren’t sufficient to ensure that teens were educated enough to make decisions about avoiding sexual or relationship risks, the authors write.

Based on their findings the authors have several recommendations for parents, including:

  • Establish open lines of communication. Parents need to be open to discussing sexual health matters whenever their teenager approaches them with a question, as opposed to putting off conversations until their child develops a romantic interest.
  • Provide accurate information. If a parent doesn’t know the answer to their child’s sexual health question, they should seek information from expert resources, such as those listed here. The authors suggest that searching for answers with their teenager at their side provides an opportunity to talk more and build trust.
  • Set an example and talk about relationships. It’s important for parents to model healthy relationships for their young children and to discuss important relationship qualities such as being respectful of family members and friends. These early conversations will lay the foundation for more sensitive topics later on like romantic relationships, the prevention of pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections, the authors note.
  • Share expectations and values. When parents tell stories about their past struggles and personal history, and their hopes for a good life for their children, they convey important values and expectations. These in turn support youth in making important life decisions such as when to engage in or abstain from sexual activity, Martinez and Orpinas explain.

While the small sample size and high-risk population limits the applicability of these findings to the broader Latino population, the recommendations on improving parent-adolescent communications about sexual health may be relevant for many.

Additional References: Look for more articles about sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention in our digital library.

Learn how talking to extended family members can influence young people’s decisions about sex.

Read tips from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy for addressing teen pregnancy in Latino communities.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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