Iowa State University
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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

04-05-07

Contacts:

Ronald Werner-Wilson, Human Development & Family Studies, (515) 294-8671, rwwilson@iastate.edu

Cathy Curtis, College of Human Sciences, (515) 294-8175, ccurtis@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

Forget 'the talk' -- ISU researcher recommends dialogue with kids about sex

AMES, Iowa -- Spring is often a time when teens' thoughts turn to love -- particularly with proms and other big social events on the calendar -- and that makes many parents anxious to have "the talk" with their kids about sex.

But an Iowa State University adolescent sexuality researcher advises parents to forget the one-time "talk." Instead, Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Ronald Werner-Wilson tells parents to have an ongoing dialogue with their children about sexuality -- a long process that should begin much earlier than the teen years.

Werner-Wilson studied the topic for his book, "Developmental-Systemic Family Therapy with Adolescents" (Haworth Press, 2001); and a 2004 research paper titled, "Multiple Perspectives of Parent-Adolescent Sexuality Communication: Phenomenological Description of a Roshaman Effect," which was published in The American Journal of Family Therapy. His research has explored the perceptions of both adolescents and their parents about adolescent sexuality through focus groups from two communities in southwest Michigan.

"What we discovered was that adolescents wanted to talk to their parents, but they didn't want lectures -- they wanted a conversation," said Werner-Wilson. "And while parents might think that they were talking to their adolescents, their adolescents didn't recall these talks as conversations."

Adolescents may recall information better if parents listen to their child's ideas and questions in a non-judgmental way and respond openly and honestly, said Werner-Wilson. "They (adolescents) do want to talk to their parents, but they want more leveling kinds of things, which seems to scare some of the parents," he said.

By the book, factors influencing sexual behavior

In his book chapter titled "Sexuality," Werner-Wilson reports that adolescent sexual attitudes and behavior are influenced by four factors: media, individual psychosocial factors, dating dynamics, and family relationships.

Parents are concerned about their child's exposure to an abundance of sexual content found in today's popular media -- whether it be the Internet, television, films, or magazines. But if that exposure is monitored and happens in isolated instances during mutual viewing, Werner-Wilson sees some "teachable moments" for parents. For instance, a mother could record a particular incident on television to ask her child what he or she might do in the same situation. He wrote about teachable moments like these in another published paper titled, "Adolescent and Parents Perceptions of Media Influence on Adolescent Sexuality."

"In that study, parents were very, very concerned about the media, and adolescents were completely indifferent -- and almost caustic," said Werner-Wilson. "Some said, 'What did they think we were going to do, run out and have sex because we saw something on television, or in a movie?' 'Give us some credit,' is the kind of things they were saying."

He wrote that parents consistently suggested that it was their responsibility to monitor messages in the media and talk to their children about sexual themes in the media. One of the parents suggested using a show to start talking to their children about the show and open a dialogue about its suggestive sexual content.

Yet parents may have a "hard sell" if they want their teens to turn off those images. Because of perceived adolescent indifference to media images, Werner-Wilson concluded in the paper that parents may need to convince their teen children that concerns about media are valid before trying to change media-influenced behavior.

Parental advice on sexuality education by teens

But he contends that parents can still have a significant influence on the sexuality education of adolescents. In his book, the following recommendations were made by the adolescents he studied:

  • Parents could cultivate an atmosphere of respect for adolescent behavior.
  • Parents could listen, rather than lecture, to concerns about sexuality raised by adolescent children.
  • Parents could provide support and factual information.
  • Parents could help their adolescent children respond to sexual coercion by talking to children about dating and expectations.

His research has also found that parents have difficulty embracing the sexuality of adolescents and seem uncomfortable openly discussing it. But once they do, the parents he studied reported that the discussion relieved anxiety and provided them with the incentive to take a more active role in discussing sex with their kids.

"One of the reasons they (parents) engage in this lecturing rather than leveling -- instead of having a conversation -- is because they're afraid their own experiences could be used against them, in the sense that they want to protect their kids from having the bad experiences that they had," said Werner-Wilson.

"But I think there have been a number of studies, including mine, which suggest that teens desperately want to talk to their parents," he said. "We tend to think in terms of the cultural myth that this second decade of life is this time of storm and stress and all relationships are bad and there's nothing but conflict between parents and children. And that's really not true. Some research has suggested that kids who are peer-oriented tend to do that because they don't have good family relationships. They turn to peers by default because they're not having good relationships at home."

And in the final analysis, Werner-Wilson said that parents should ask themselves this critical question -- "Would you like your child to learn about sex from you, or someone else?" The answer typically gives parents something to talk about.

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WernerWilson

Ronald Werner-Wilson

Quick look

ISU Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Ronald Werner-Wilson studied teens, their parents and sex for his book, "Developmental-Systemic Family Therapy with Adolescents" (Haworth Press, 2001); and two related papers published in professional journals. He advises parents to have an ongoing dialogue with their children about sexuality -- a long process that should begin much earlier than the teen years.

Quote

"What we discovered was that adolescents wanted to talk to their parents, but they didn't want lectures -- they wanted a conversation. And while parents might think that they were talking to their adolescents, their adolescents didn't recall these talks as conversations."

Ronald Werner-Wilson