Correlates and Consequences of Parent-Teen Incongruence in Reports of Teens' Sexual Experience

Article excerpt

A large body of literature has examined parent-teen communication about sex (for reviews, see Devore & Ginsburg, 2005; Miller, 2002). The degree of communication and its content may vary widely, and research suggests that the influence of such dialogue on adolescent sexual behavior is not necessarily uniform or consistent (Clawson & Reese-Weber, 2003; Miller, 2002). Although many studies rely on survey questions that ask broadly about discussions between parents and teenagers, they focus primarily on the flow of information from parents to teens (e.g., DiClemente et al., 2001; Whitaker, Miller, May, & Levin, 1999). Less research has specifically examined the amount of information parents have about their teens' behaviors. The limited extant research on this aspect of parent-teen communication about sex suggests that as with other behaviors parents may consider problematic (Barker, Bornstein, Putnick, Hendricks, & Suwalsky, 2007; Fisher et al., 2006; Yang et al., 2006), parents frequently have inaccurate knowledge of teenagers' and young adults' sexual experience (Bylund, Imes, & Baxter, 2005; Jaccard, Dittus, & Gordon, 1998; Yang et al., 2006). Furthermore, incongruence between parent and teen reports of adolescents' sexual experience significantly affects teenagers' subsequent sexual behaviors (Yang et al., 2006).

There are two possible types of incongruence between parents' and teens' reports of teens' sexual experience. Parents are quite likely to underestimate their children's sexual experience (i.e., teens report having had sex, whereas their parents report that the teen has not had sex; Yang et al., 2006). Overestimation (teens reporting not having had sex, whereas parents report the opposite), on the other hand, is relatively rare (Yang et al., 2006). Both of these types of incongruent reports tend to be "self-fulfilling prophecies" in which adolescents' subsequent sexual behaviors frequently change to conform to the parent's earlier report (Yang et al., 2006).

In this exploratory study, we ask two primary research questions. First, what factors are associated with incongruence in parents' and adolescents' reports of teens' past sexual experience? We partition incongruence into parental overestimation and underestimation of teenagers' sexual experience because past evidence suggests that these two types of discordant reports differ in important ways (Yang et al., 2006). It is likely to matter both that teenagers have actually had sex in the case of underestimation but not overestimation, and that parents think teens have had sex in the case of overestimation but not underestimation. Second, is accurate parental knowledge of teens' sexual experience beneficial or problematic for adolescents' subsequent sexual behaviors? We propose four alternative hypotheses about the predictors and consequences of incongruence between parents' and teens' reports.

Past evidence on congruence and incongruence in parents' and teens' reports of teens' sexual activity has analyzed regional, nonrepresentative samples, has included a fairly limited set of potential correlates, and has not explored the consequences of incongruence for adolescents' sexual behaviors beyond subsequent sexual intercourse. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), our study addresses these three areas, building on earlier work to provide a more comprehensive empirical picture of the correlates and consequences of incongruent reports about teens' sexual activity. We also provide an exploratory theoretical framework for thinking about what might cause parents' reports to be inaccurate and why that inaccuracy might matter.

We take the view that because engaging in sexual intercourse may not have negative consequences for all teens (for a discussion, see Bearman & Bruckner, 2001), to fully understand the consequences of parental knowledge we should move beyond simply studying sex itself to analyzing whether adolescents are engaging in a range of healthier or riskier sexual behaviors (Bearman & Bruckner, 2001; for examples, see Clawson & Reese-Weber, 2003; Henrich, Brookmeyer, Shrier, & Shahar, 2006; Jaccard & Dittus, 2000). …