Theses Doctoral

Parental Influence on Adolescent Sexual Behavior: A Current Look at the Role of Communication and Monitoring and Supervision

Kantor, Leslie M.

Parents are central to adolescents’ lives and extensive research shows that parents can influence adolescent and young adults’ sexual decision-making in positive ways. However, the ability of interventions to help parents influence their children’s sexual health has been modest. In many cases, interventions for parents have not been guided by theory or strong research and many interventions for parents are based on only a general sense that more communication between parents and their children on topics related to sexuality is helpful. Currently, millions of dollars in public funding in the United States are designated for programs to reduce teen pregnancy and prevent sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, many foundations and individuals contribute significant funds to organizations that implement programs that strive to improve adolescent sexual health. Increasingly, there is an interest in including program components for parents in order to help them to positively influence their teens’ sexual decision-making. At this time, few interventions for parents related to influencing their teens sexual decision-making and behavior have been developed that have resulted in positive outcomes, with the notable exceptions of Families Talking Together and Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education that Works, which have both been added to the United States Department of Health and Human Services list of evidence-based programs in the last 18 months.
In order to develop additional interventions of benefit to parents and adolescents and to ensure that policy and practice are strengthened, up-to-date information from large, diverse samples about the frequency and content of family communication about sexuality currently taking place between parents and teens is critical. Few studies have allowed for direct comparison of African American, Hispanic and White families in terms of communication about sexuality and parental monitoring of adolescents. Understanding both similarities and differences can help with tailoring interventions to have more positive effects on teen sexual decision-making and behavior.
One challenge to better understanding the influence of parental communication on adolescent sexual health is the wide variety of measures used in research, with some studies relying only on single item measures of communication. Without consistent measurement of communication and its many facets, it is difficult to ascertain which aspects of communication may be the drivers of behavior or to compare results across studies. Scales with strong psychometric properties are needed to strengthen the consistency and quality of research on parent-child communication about sexuality. Further, these scales must be tested with samples that include participants that are racially and ethnically diverse and samples that include fathers and mothers, as well as teen males and females to allow for scales to be validated by gender and race/ethnicity and for both parents and teens. The current study resulted in the development of three new scales with strong psychometric properties, which can now be used in research on parent-child communication about sexuality.
This study also allowed for an examination of current barriers to communication about sexuality including the ways that those barriers differ and influence communication for African American, Latino and White parents and teens. Further, understanding the role that monitoring can play in promoting teens’ sexual health also merits up to date exploration as well as greater understanding of whether monitoring practices vary in diverse families or for teen males compared to females is needed to increase awareness of opportunities for positive influence on young people’s sexual development.
The current study is particularly valuable given that many data sets do not allow for direct comparisons of African American, Latino and White teens and parents. The extent to which family communication or monitoring practices differ may suggest ways that interventions should be tailored for various populations or may suggest positive practices that can be promoted across groups. In addition, a current understanding of how communication and monitoring may vary with sons compared to daughters can provide awareness and insight to both parents and program developers about the types of parenting behaviors that might be addressed by programs and improved in order to make a difference in the lives of young people.
The papers in this dissertation utilize data collected from 1,663 parent-child dyads in July, 2014 by Gfk, Inc. Gfk, Inc. has constructed a large, diverse panel of adults in the United States. They recruit their panel using a combination of random digit dial phone techniques and address-based sampling. More information on the construction of the overall Gfk, Inc. panel is available at: For this study, parents were sampled from the broader Gfk, Inc. panel using e-mail invitations and were asked to consent on behalf of themselves and one of their children between the ages of 9 and 21. For non-Latino White parents, a random selection of parents were invited. All Latino and African American parents in the panel were invited to participate. An algorithm was used to request which of the parent’s children to invite when a parent had more than one child in the eligible age group which was age 9-21. The organization requesting the data had a particular interest in 15-19 year olds and the algorithm was constructed accordingly. Within a household, when there was more than 1 child in the 9-21 year old age range, 15-19 year olds were selected at a 3:1 ratio (e.g. when there was a 15-19 year old and a 9-14 year old or a 20-21 year old in the same household, for every three times a 15-19 year old was selected, a non-15-19 year old was selected one time). The final sample included 749 teens ages 14 and younger, 740 teens ages 15-19, and 174 teens ages 20-21.
In addition to parental consent, teens assented for their participation in the study. The parent questionnaire contained 91 items and the teen questionnaire contained 46 items. The median completion time was 17 minutes. Seven hundred eleven Whites, 300 African Americans and 652 Latino dyads completed the surveys. One thousand eighty one mothers and 582 fathers completed the surveys and 801 girls and 862 boys completed the surveys. Surveys for parents were customized using the name of the child that parents stated would take the survey and teen surveys were customized to include the term father or mother based on which parent had completed the survey. I completed a preliminary analysis of the demographics of the study sample compared to available nationally representative data prior to beginning the research for the dissertation. That analysis immediately follows this introduction. The three papers follow.
Paper 1 is a confirmatory factor analysis on five potential scales for measuring parent-child communication about sexuality and barriers to communication. Paper 2 explores parent-child communication about sexuality related topics including differences in communication by race/ethnicity, gender and age and whether communication is associated with changes in the likelihood of adolescents’ ever having engaged in any sexual behavior, ever having engaged in oral sex, ever having engaged in vaginal sex, consistency of condom use in the past 3 months and/or consistency of birth control use (other than condoms) in the past 3 months. Paper 3 examines parent and teen reports of parental monitoring and the association between monitoring and sexual behavior outcomes as well as differences in monitoring among African American, Latino and White families and of sons compared to daughters. Conclusions and implications follow the third paper.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Teitler, Julien
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 11, 2015