This study examined family structural variables (family income, parental education, and maternal marital status) and process variables (maternal monitoring, mother-adolescent general communication, mother-adolescent sexual communication, and maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior) as predictors of indices of adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior in 907 Black and Hispanic families from Montgomery, Alabama, New York City, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The findings indicated that familystructure variables failed to predict adolescent sexual behavior. In contrast, each of three familyprocess variables predicted multiple indices of adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior Neither adolescent gender nor ethnicity qualified the findings. Differences did emerge among the three locations and by reporter (adolescent or mother) of the family process variables.
Key Words: adolescents, family processes, sexual behavior
Adolescents are at risk for the negative health consequences associated with early and unsafe sexual activity. These consequences include infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., syphilis, chlamydia) and the occurrence of unintended pregnancy (Aggleton, 1995; Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1990; Kegeles, Adler, & Irwin, 1989). For example, national data reveal that 15- to 19-year-old adolescents have the highest rates of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia in the United States (Bowler, Sheon, D'Angelo, & Vermund, 1992; DHHS, 1990). Furthermore, the U. S. has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western industrialized countries (see Kirby et al., 1994), and the rates are rising among unmarried 14- to 16-year-old females (Bluestein & Starling, 1994).
Consistent data across a number of national surveys indicate that sexual activity among American adolescents has increased over the past two decades. According to data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, over one half of high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse before graduation. Estimates appear to be higher for males, minority adolescents, and adolescents of lower socioeconomic status (Kann et al., 1996; Leigh, Morrison, Trocki, & Temple, 1994; Seidman & Reider, 1994). For example, 81 % and 62% of Black and Hispanic males in high school and 67% and 53% of Black and Hispanic females in high school report having engaged in sexual intercourse. Comparable rates for Caucasian male and female students are both 49%.
Many sexually active adolescents engage in behaviors that are considered risky or unsafe and that may expose them to HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, or may result in unintended pregnancy. Of particular concern is the frequent finding that only a small proportion (i.e., approximately 10%-20%) of sexually active adolescents consistently use condoms (DiClemente et al., 1992; Kann et al., 1996; Seidman & Reider, 1994). The consistent use of condoms appears to be lower for minority adolescents than for Caucasian adolescents (Airhihenbuwa, DiClemente, Wingood, & Lowe, 1992; Brown, DiClemente, & Park, 1992). Furthermore, adolescents tend to engage in short sexual relationships that are serially monogamous and that increase their exposure to multiple sexual partners and, subsequently, increase their risk of contracting HIV infection and other negative consequences of sexual risk behavior (Overby & Kegeles, 1994).
Concern about HIV infection, as well as the prevalence of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents, has sparked a surge of research in the psychosocial context of sexual initiation and sexual risk-taking behavior (Bluestein & Starling, 1994; Gardner & Wilcox, 1993; Rosenberg, Biggar, & Goedert, 1994). One factor that consistently plays an important role in the sexual socialization of adolescents is the family context (Small & Luster, 1994). Familial influences on adolescent sexual activity can be divided into two categories: familystructure variables and family-process variables. Generally, structural variables have received less attention than process variables. However, several studies suggest that structural variables cannot be ignored. Among such variables relating to the early onset of sexual activity and the frequency of sexual intercourse are single parenting or the absence of a father (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985), low educational attainment of parents (Flick, 1986; Hayes, 1987; Small & Luster, 1994; Udry & Billy, 1987), and low family socioeconomic status.
For the most part, structural family variables have not played a prominent role in either theoretical frameworks to understand adolescent sexual behavior or practical efforts to change risky adolescent sexual behavior. This likely has resulted from the viewpoint that these variables are static and not immediately susceptible to change through intervention. In contrast, several theoretical frameworks, one of which is social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Reid, & Dishon, 1992), have guided research into familyprocess variables. (For reviews, see Herlocher, Hoff, & DeCarlo, 1995; Kotchick, Miller, & Forehand, in press.)
Social learning theory has focused on the importance of process variables in the learning and subsequent performance of behavior. From a family context, parental behavior and attitudes are considered critical in the socialization of adolescents. Two parenting variables that have been identified as important in affecting behavior are monitoring the adolescent's activities and communication-both mother-adolescent communication in general and mother-adolescent communication about sex (e.g., Patterson et al., 1992; Robin & Foster, 1989). We examine these two variables, along with parental attitudes.
Parental monitoring or supervising adolescents' social activities has been consistently associated with delayed sexual initiation or less risky sexual behavior (Capaldi, Crosby, & Stoolmiller, 1996; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Luster & Small, 1994; Metzler, Noell, Biglan, Ary, & Smolkowski, 1994; Romer et al., 1994; Small & Luster, 1994). Parental monitoring also has been associated with lower levels of other behavior problems in adolescence, problems such as aggressive behavior, alcohol use, and delinquency (Patterson et. al., 1992). In addition, monitoring has been associated with better overall psychosocial adjustment among adolescents (Baumrind, 1991), an important predictor of delayed onset of sexual activity (e.g., Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg, 1989; Capaldi et al., 1996; Harvey & Spigner, 1995; Tubman, Windle, & Windle, 1996). Although monitoring appears to be an important predictor of the timing of sexual initiation, data have not emerged to suggest that monitoring plays a similar role in reducing risks and promoting safe-sex practices, such as condom use, among sexually active adolescents.
Parent-child communication has been linked with sexual activity during adolescence. Adolescents who describe their parents as attentive and supportive communicators report less sexual activity during junior high school and high school (Mueller & Powers, 1990). Communication about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and appropriate strategies to reduce risk is particularly important for adolescents. Indeed, parent-adolescent communication about sexual behavior and AIDS has been found to facilitate adolescents' knowledge about sex and their subsequent reduction in risk (Jaccard, Dittus, & Gordon, 1996; Pick & Palos, 1995; Sigelman, Derenowski, Mullaney, & Siders, 1993). However, Jaccard et al. found that communication between parent and child about birth control also was positively related to the initiation of sexual intercourse.
Parental attitudes about adolescent sexual activity have been associated with adolescent sexual behavior. Permissive parental attitudes have been related to earlier sexual activity among teens (Small & Luster, 1994; Thornton & Camburn, 1987). Conversely, adolescents who perceived that their parents disapproved of teen sexual activity have been less likely to be sexually active (Jaccard et al., 1996; Metzler et al., 1994).
Both structural and process variables have been found to relate to adolescent sexual activity. However, many studies have failed to include multiple dimensions of the family system and have focused on youth who have a relatively low risk for engaging in sexual risk behavior (e.g., Caucasian adolescents). The study presented here extends the literature by examining multiple variables of family structure and processes in two minority samples: Black and Hispanic youth. In addition, both male and female youth from three different locations are included. The outcome measures utilized in this investigation move beyond examining whether or not an adolescent has engaged in sexual intercourse and examine multiple indices of sexual behavior (frequency of intercourse, number of sex partners, and age of first intercourse) and one indicator of risk due to sexual behavior (percentage of time that condoms were used during intercourse). Each of these measures is important, and, when considered together, all of them provide a more complete picture of adolescent sexual risk taking. We examine each variable separately to ascertain if the same family variables or different ones predicted each outcome measure. We also test the role of adolescent gender or ethnicity in qualifying the relationship between the family variables and each of the indicators. Finally, we consider different patterns of results that may emerge according to geographic location and reporter (adolescent or mother).
We hypothesized that family-structure variables (i.e., parental education, marital status, and family income) would relate to adolescent sexual behavior and that adolescents with less-educated and single parents, as well as those who live in families with low monthly incomes, would be more sexually active across outcome measures. However, we hypothesized that family-process variables (monitoring, general communication, sexual communication, and maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior) would have stronger relationships with adolescent sexual activity than would family-structure variables. We based this hypothesis on the position that the effect of family structure and socioeconomic status on adolescent behavior actually is a reflection of differences in family processes, perhaps set in motion by those structural variables. We hypothesized that parental monitoring and mother-adolescent communication, particularly sexual communication, would be the strongest predictors of adolescent sexual activity. We expected that parental values would relate to adolescent sexual behavior but less strongly than monitoring and communication. Specifically, we proposed that less parental monitoring and more permissive parental values about adolescent sexual behavior would predict more frequent intercourse by adolescents, more sexual partners, and earlier ages at first intercourse. In addition, we expected better sexual communication between mother and adolescent to predict more consistent condom use. We offer no specific hypotheses about whether adolescent gender or ethnicity qualify the relationship between family variables and adolescent sexual behavior. Similarly, we do not propose hypotheses about the role of location or reporter of measures of family process because these variables are viewed as exploratory.
Participants were 907 adolescents and their mothers (biological, adopted, or stepmothers) who were part of the Family Adolescent Risk Behavior and Communication Study (Miller et al., 1997). All participants self-identified as Black or Hispanic and were recruited from two public high schools in Montgomery, Alabama, two public high schools in New York City (the Bronx), and one in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The sample sizes were 259 Blacks in Montgomery, 172 Blacks in New York, 260 Hispanics in Puerto Rico, and 216 Hispanics (76% Puerto Rican, 12% Dominican, 12% other) in New York.
To participate, adolescents had to be 14-16 years old at the time of recruitment, had to selfidentify as Black or Hispanic, and had to be enrolled in the ninth, 10th, or 11 th grades in one of the high schools. They had to have lived with their mother for at least the past 10 years. In addition, all adolescents had to have resided in the recruitment area for at least 10 consecutive years. Table 1 presents the demographic characteristics of the total sample and the sample in each location.
Five to six local interviewers were employed at each site. We gave preference to those with previous interviewing experience and good interpersonal skills. Furthermore, because interviewers were matched with participant's gender, ethnicity, and (to some extent) age, these factors also were taken into account in the selection of interviewers.
We trained interviewers for a total of approximately 25 hours over several days. The training consisted of an overview of the project and its research goals, a review of structured interviewing techniques, familiarization with the questionnaires used with adolescents and mothers, and role playing. In addition, training addressed the interviewer's legal responsibility to report any abuse of a minor revealed during an interview and discussion of crisis management. Finally, all interviewers were observed conducting an interview and were given appropriate feedback on their performance.
Initial measurement development occurred at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The instrument consisted of some constructs that were assessed by items from existing measures and others that were devised specifically for this study. The instrument was translated into Spanish, and both English and Spanish versions were piloted many times at the sites. Based on each piloting, the instrument was revised until final versions were derived. Back-translation of the Spanish version into English did not occur.
Beyond the assessment of demographic information, we assessed seven variables from the family system as predictors. We considered three items (income, parental education, and maternal marital status) as family-structure variables and the remaining four (monitoring, general communication, sexual communication, and maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior) as family-process variables. Of the process variables, two assessed general behavior or beliefs, and two assessed sexrelated behavior or beliefs.
Demographic information. Demographic information was obtained from the mother and adolescent. Information provided by the mother included her ethnicity, current city of residence, mother's and adolescent's ages, mother's current employment status, mother's total number of children, and the length of time the adolescent had resided with her or his mother and in the current city. Gender, ethnicity, and school year of the adolescent were ascertained during the adolescent interview. To determine ethnicity, we gave both mother and adolescent a card with various ethnic groups listed on it and asked them to select the group that best identified them. For the 20 cases in which a discrepancy existed between mother and adolescent, the adolescent's designation of ethnicity was used.
Family income, matemal education, and maternal marital status. These three items were completed by the mother. For family income, the mother was asked: "What is your total family income per month? That is, from all persons living in the household?" The mother selected one of seven choices, ranging from, $0-$199 to $4,000 or more. For parental education the mother was asked: "How far did you go in school?" The mother selected one of seven choices, ranging from some school, but did not go to high school to graduate or professional degree. We used the items that assessed family income and parental education as an index of family socioeconomic status. The scales for both measures had unequal intervals, so scores were standardized before data analysis. We assessed marital status using the following item: "What is your current marital status?" The mothers' responses were collapsed into a dichotomous item: currently married or not currently married.
Monitoring. We used four questions, derived from the Strictness/Supervision Scale (Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992), to assess parental monitoring. We asked mothers and adolescents four questions. They rated their responses on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (doesn't/don't know at all) to 4 (always knows/know). The questions asked the adolescent were: "To what extent does your mother know where you go at night, what you do with your free time, where you go most afternoons, and who your friends are?" The questions were reworded to assess the mother's perception of her knowledge of these aspects of her child's life. The alpha coefficients for the monitoring scales completed by adolescent and mother were .68 and .73, respectively. Higher scores indicate more monitoring.
Mother-adolescent general communication. We used 10 questions, based on the work of Barnes and Olsen (1985), to measure general communication between parent and adolescent. Both mother and adolescent answered the questions, and each question was scored on a 4-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). The questions asked the adolescent were: "My mother and I can talk about almost anything"; "my mother sometimes doesn't listen to me"; "I can tell mother how I feel about everything"; "I am satisfied with how my mother and I talk together"; "I am careful about what I say to my mother"; "when I ask questions, I get honest answers from my mother"; "there are topics I avoid discussing with my mother"; "my mother knows how to talk to me"; "I find it easy to discuss problems with my mother"; "it is easy for me to discuss all my true feelings with my mother." With appropriate rewording, the same questions were asked of the mother. Some items were reverse-scored so that higher scores indicate better communication between mother and adolescent. The alpha coefficient was .86 for the adolescent reports and .76 for the mother reports.
Mother-adolescent sexual communication. We used four items to measure sexual communication between mother and adolescent. Both mother and adolescent completed the four items. The items were: "Have you and your mother ever talked about when to start having sex?" "Have you and your mother ever talked about birth control?" "Have you and your mother ever talked about condoms?" "Have you and your mother ever talked about AIDS or HIV?" Items for the mother were reworded to assess her perceptions. For each item, a no response was scored 1, and a yes response was scored 2. The alpha coefficients for the adolescent version and the mother version were .68 and .71, respectively. Higher scores indicate more sexual communication between mother and adolescent.
Maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior. We assessed this variable using nine items completed by mothers only. These items consisted of the following: "What do you think about male teenagers having sex? male teenagers having lots of different sex partners? female teenagers having sex? female teenagers having lots of different sex partners? male teenagers getting females pregnant? female teenagers getting pregnant? your son/ daughter having sex? your son/daughter getting pregnant/getting someone pregnant? your son/ daughter having lots of different sex partners?" Mothers answered each item on a 3-point scale (never OK, sometimes OK, and always OK). The alpha coefficient was .75. We summed the items to form one scale with higher scores indicating more acceptance of adolescent sexual activity.
Outcome measures. We used four items, completed by adolescents, to measure adolescent sexual behavior (penile-vaginal intercourse). Each item represented a separate dependent measure. The following questions were asked the adolescent: "In your lifetime, how many times have you had vaginal sex? In your lifetime, how many boys or men [girls or women] have you had vaginal sex with? How old were you the first time you had vaginal sex? Of the times you have had vaginal sex in your lifetime, how often did you and your partner use a condom?" Condom use was rated using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always).
All recruitment and data collection occurred between October, 1993, and June, 1994. Participants were recruited in school classes with presentations about the project, with fliers describing the study, and mailings to families of students. We asked interested persons to complete a form and return it to the school or to contact the research office directly. Those who returned a form were screened by phone to determine their eligibility. Of the 4,610 students contacted, 1,733 provided screening information, and 1,124 appeared to be eligible. Of the 1,124 who were apparently eligible, 982 dyads were interviewed, for a participation rate of 87%. Site-specific participation rates were 83%, 88%, and 92% for San Juan, Montgomery, and New York City, respectively. Subsequent analysis of responses from the 982 interviewed dyads showed 907 actually met the eligibility criteria. The study sample comprises these 907 dyads.
Separate interviews were conducted with the adolescent and the mother at the adolescent's school or at an off-site research office. We matched interviewers with participants on both ethnicity and gender in all cases. In addition, we used older women to interview mothers and younger interviewers to work with the adolescents. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, depending on each participant's preference. All interviews were conducted in English in Montgomery and in Spanish in San Juan. In New York City, all interviews with adolescents were conducted in English, and interviews were conducted in English with 309 mothers and in Spanish with 79 mothers. At the beginning of the session, the interviewer explained confidentiality and procedural issues to the participant. The interviewer also reviewed the consent form with the mother and adolescent separately and had each sign the form. In order to reduce the adolescent's concerns about disclosure of information to her or his mother, interviewers conducted adolescent interviews after the mother's interview when possible. This occurred in 91% of the interviews. Interviews lasted approximately 1 hour. Mothers were paid $45, and adolescents were paid $25 for their participation.
Sex-Related Descriptive Information
Three hundred and seventy-one of the adolescents (41%) reported that they had engaged in penilevaginal intercourse. Of these, 175 (47%) and 143 (39%) had engaged in intercourse multiple times and with multiple partners, respectively. None of the adolescents reported that they were HIVinfected, whereas nine reported they had contracted another sexually transmitted disease (i.e., genital herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, warts, or chlamydia). Thirty-three of the females who had engaged in intercourse reported that they had ever been pregnant, and nine of these reported they had one child or more children. Fourteen of the males reported they had impregnated a female, and one reported having one child or more children.
We conducted preliminary analyses to determine if there were limitations on combining data across locations. Box's M was used to examine if the covariance matrices for the three groups (by location) were equal (Norusis, 1990). For each of the four measures of adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior, the resulting F value was significant: in all cases, F(110; 169, 101) > 1.41, p < .01. This suggests that the covariance matrices are not equal. However, as Norusis points out, with large samples, it is likely to obtain a significant F value, even if the group covariance matrices are not too dissimilar. Thus, we conducted analyses combining across locations and entering location as a control variable and then separately by location. In this way, both an overview of the findings and location-specific findings are presented and considered.
Predictors and Outcome Measures
Table 2 presents the means and standard deviations for the family variables used as predictors of adolescent sexual activity. Included are the values for adolescent reports of monitoring and for mother reports of monitoring, general communication, and sexual communication.
Regarding outcome measures, an initial examination of the frequency distributions indicated that frequency of intercourse across the life time, number of sex partners, and age of first intercourse were highly skewed. Initially, we conducted several data transformations (e.g., log transformation, square), each of which failed to adequately correct the skewed distribution. As a consequence, each of the three outcome measures was reclassified. Frequency of intercourse across the life time was reclassified as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or more times. Frequency of intercourse during the past 6 months was reclassified as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or more times. Number of sex partners was reclassified as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or more. Age at first intercourse was reclassified as 10 years old or younger, I, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 years old. Examination of the residual histograms suggested that the reclassified data for each of these outcome measures approximated a normal distribution. The reclassified data, which we used in all data analyses, are presented in Table 2 for the total sample and for each location.
Next we examined the relationships among the outcome measures. Several significant and nonsignificant correlations are of particular interest. The number of times adolescents reported having intercourse correlated positively with the number of lifetime sex partners (r = .81, p < .01) and negatively with age of first intercourse (r = -.15, p < .01). The number of lifetime intercourse partners was associated negatively with an earlier age of first sex (r = -.44, p < .01). Frequency of intercourse in the adolescent's lifetime, number of lifetime sex partners, and age of first intercourse were not associated with consistency of condom use (r < .09 in all cases).
Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted. We entered variables in four blocks. In the first block, four demographic variables (where the family lived and adolescent age, gender, and ethnicity) were entered as control variables. In the second block, we entered structural variables (i.e., family income, parent education, parent's marital status). In contrast to process variables, these cannot be changed through intervention programs. However, previous literature (e.g., Devine, Long, & Forehand, 1993; Flick, 1986; Udry & Billy, 1987) suggests that they are related to adolescent sexual activity and, therefore, should be taken into account. We chose to examine their relationship with outcome measures and to control for these relationships before entering family-process variables (motheradolescent communication, maternal monitoring, mother-adolescent sexual communication, and maternal attitudes about adolescent sexuality) in the third block. In the fourth block, we examined whether adolescent gender or ethnicity qualified any significant relationships that emerged between a predicator and an outcome measure. Does a different relationship between a particular predictor and an outcome variable exist for females versus males or Blacks versus Hispanics? This information could be important in designing gender-sensitive and ethnic-sensitive prevention programs for adolescents engaged in high risk sexual activity. We chose not to examine the interaction of adolescent age with significant predictor variables because we examined a narrow age range, and we do not envision different recommendations emerging for adolescents within this range.
The regression analyses for each of the four outcome variables are presented in Table 3 for the total sample. Mother-adolescent general communication, maternal monitoring, and mother-adolescent sexual communication are based on adolescent reports. After controlling for demographic variables, none of the structural family variables entered in Block 2 was a significant predictor of adolescent sexual activity. Three variables-monitoring, general motheradolescent communication, and maternal sex attitudes emerged as significant predictors (p < .05) in Block 3. As general communication between mother and adolescent increased and as maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior became more conservative, the frequency of lifetime sexual intercourse and the number of sex partners decreased. Furthermore, increases in monitoring were associated with fewer intercourse partners and a greater likelihood of condom use. In Block 4, the gender and ethnicity of the adolescent failed to qualify any of the main effects.
Next we conducted identical hierarchical regression analyses for the total sample in which mother reports of the four family-process variables were used. In addition, we conducted identical hierarchical analyses separately for each location for each reporter of family-process variables. This resulted in six sets of analyses. A summary of the results of all analyses, including those reported in Table 3 for the total sample using adolescent reports of family-process variables, is presented in Table 4. Significant beta coefficients for familyprocess variables are shown.
Five trends are evident in Table 4. First, increases in maternal monitoring, particularly based on mothers' reports, are consistently related to less frequent adolescent sexual intercourse and fewer sexual partners in all three locations. Second, from the adolescents' reports, increases in general mother-adolescent communication are associated with less frequent sexual intercourse and fewer sexual partners in New York and Montgomery, but not in San Juan. Third, communication about sex between mother and adolescent has a weak and inconsistent association with adolescent sexual behavior. It is associated with a later age at first sexual intercourse for San Juan adolescents but more frequent sexual intercourse for New York and Montgomery adolescents and more sexual partners for New York adolescents. Fourth, more conservative maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual behavior are related to less adolescent sexual behavior more often in San Juan than in New York and Montgomery. Fifth, family-process variables are related to frequency of sexual intercourse and the number of sexual partners more often than to age at first intercourse and the percentage of time that a condom was used.
We examined two levels of family variables: familystructure variables and family-process variables. Family-structure variables did not emerge as significant predictors of the outcome measures in the eight sets of regression analyses. Although this is contrary to some studies (e.g., Devine et al., 1993; Flick, 1986; Small & Luster, 1994), the findings for family-structure variables have by no means been consistent (e.g., Day, 1992; Harvey & Spigner; 1995). Our analyses suggest that process, rather than structural, variables are of primary importance when the role of the family in predicting adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior is considered.
We hypothesized that two parental behaviorsmonitoring and communication-and parental attitudes would relate to adolescent sexual behavior and risk resulting from that behavior. Although some differences emerged based on the reporter (mother or adolescent) of the family-process variable and the location (New York, Montgomery, or San Juan), the findings overall suggest that all three of these family-process variables are associated with adolescent sexual behavior.
We found that one process variable, parental monitoring, consistently predicted less sexual activity (i.e., frequency of intercourse and number of sex partners), particularly when mothers' reports of monitoring were utilized. From a social learning perspective, this finding is not surprising. Considerable importance has been ascribed to monitoring in the management of adolescent sexual behavior (e.g., Capaldi et al., 1996; Metzler et al., 1994; Romer et al., 1994; Small & Luster, 1994) and in the prevention of other problem behaviors during adolescence that have been found to relate to increased sexual risk taking. Even in the context of this literature, the robustness of the relationship between maternal monitoring and sexual behavior across genders, ethnic groups, and locations in the study presented here is impressive.
The finding that monitoring is associated with less frequent intercourse and fewer sexual partners has a somewhat obvious explanation. A parent who knows with whom and where her adolescent spends time can prevent the opportunity for sexual activity. The association between monitoring and the consistency of condom use is more difficult to explain. The effectiveness of parental monitoring in the promotion of condom use has rarely been examined, and a significant relationship has not been found (i.e., Romer et al., 1994). Perhaps parents who monitor their adolescent's activities are also more vigilant about teaching safer sex practices. However, the failure to find a significant relationship between mother-adolescent sexual communication and condom use does not support this explanation. A replication of the association between monitoring and condom use is needed before we attempt to explain this finding.
Like monitoring, positive general communication between mother and adolescent was associated with less frequent intercourse and fewer sexual partners, particularly in New York and Montgomery. These findings are congruent with the existing literature (e.g., Mueller & Powers, 1990). Positive communication may foster an identification with parental values and may reduce the probability of engaging in sexual intercourse. Counter to one of our hypotheses, higher levels of general communication were more strongly and consistently related to lower levels of adolescent sexual behavior than was mother-adolescent communication that was specifically about sex. One explanation is that general communication may serve as a proxy for the overall quality of the parent-adolescent relationship, which consistently has emerged as a powerful predictor of adolescent behavior in cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses (e.g., Summers, Forehand, Armistead, & Tannenbaum, in press). From this perspective, it would not be surprising if the overall quality of the relationship were a better predictor of adolescent sexual behavior than whether or not specific sexual topics have been discussed, which was our measure in this investigation. Future research should examine the quality of communication about sex, as well as discussion of specific sexual topics.
Permissive maternal attitudes about adolescent sexual activity related positively to the frequency of intercourse and the number of sexual partners of the adolescent, particularly for families in San Juan. Other investigators (Jaccard et al., 1996; Small & Luster, 1994; Thornton & Camburn, 1987) have reported relationships between maternal attitudes and adolescent sexual behavior.
Family-process variables were related more often to the frequency of adolescent sexual intercourse and the number of sex partners than to age at first sex and percentage of times condoms were used. There are two potential explanations for the discrepancies across outcome measures. First, smaller samples were available for analyses of age at first sex and condom use because sexual intercourse had to have occurred for adolescents to respond to these measures. Thus, less power to detect relationships may account for the few significant relationships between family-process variables and these two outcome measures. Second, age at first sex and condom use may be less susceptible to family influence than are the frequency of intercourse and the number of sexual partners. In any case, our results suggest that the association of family variables with adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behaviors varies, depending on the outcome measure used.
Variation in the relationship between familyprocess variables and outcome measures also emerged based on who reported the process variable and where the respondents resided. In general, mothers' reports of monitoring and adolescents' reports of mother-adolescent general communication resulted in significant relationships with the frequency of sexual intercourse and the number of sexual partners. Prior research typically has not examined the reporter of family variables, so it is not possible to consider our findings in the context of earlier studies. However, these findings are dependent, at least in part, on the reporter of the family variables.
Similarly, findings differed to some extent by location. In particular, mother-adolescent general communication, reported by the adolescent, was associated with the frequency of intercourse and the number of sex partners in New York and Montgomery, whereas maternal attitudes about adolescent sexuality were more strongly related to the same outcome measures for the San Juan sample. A number of factors may account for the differences between San Juan and the other two sites. These include cultural values and influences, acculturation experiences, and variations in the language in which the interview was conducted (Forehand & Kotchick, 1996; Garcia Coll, Meyer, & Brillon, 1995).
Our investigation has a number of strengths. First, both adolescents and mothers were sources of our data. This stands in contrast to many earlier studies in which information was collected from adolescents only. The source of data influenced the findings in our study. Second, the study of Black and Hispanic adolescents focuses attention on two ethnic groups that have been identified as at risk for early sexual behavior and increased exposure to the negative health consequences of sexual activity. Third, interviewers were sensitive to the cultural issues of the sample. Fourth, the use of multiple indicators of adolescent sexual activity allowed the identification of different patterns of relationships between predictors and outcome measures.
Our study also has a number of limitations, although many of them are characteristic of the literature. First, measures of sexual activity were reported only by the adolescent, and we did not collect predictor variables from fathers, peers, or school personnel. Second, the data were crosssectional, thus limiting conclusions about cause and effect. Third, although data collection occurred at three sites, the data are not nationally representative, thus restricting generalization. Fourth, generalization of findings also is restricted primarily to 14- to 16-year-old Hispanic and Black adolescents and to one aspect of adolescent sexual behavior: heterosexual intercourse. Fifth, although significant regression equations emerged in the data analyses, the percentage of variance accounted for is modest. This suggests that there are other predictors, perhaps in the family system or in other systems, that were not considered in this study (e.g., extrafamilial-peers, school) and that need to be identified to understand and design prevention programs for risky adolescent sexual behavior. Sixth, the language in which the assessment instrument was completed varied across sites and within one site, New York. Administering an instrument in English or Spanish could influence the findings due to differences in meanings of words and phrases. Furthermore, mothers in New York City who completed the instrument in Spanish were less acculturated than those who completed the instrument in English.
Our findings suggest that the family plays an important role in adolescent sexual behavior and risk due to sexual behavior. To date, most prevention programs targeting youth are peer-led or are based on school-approved curricula, which vary dramatically. (See Kotchick et al., in press, for a review.) However, we propose that parents are the most powerful socializing agents in the lives of young teens. Parents are in a unique and powerful position to shape young people's attitudes and behaviors and to socialize them to become sexually healthy adults. They can do this, in part, by providing accurate information about sex and its risks, consequences, and responsibilities, as well as by imparting skills that adolescents need to make responsible decisions about their health. However, the strength of parents' impact, relative to other sources of information, may arise from their ability to engage their children in dialogs about sexual development and decision making, dialogs that are continuous, sequential (i.e., building one upon the next as the child's cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development and experiences change), and time-sensitive (i.e., information is immediately responsive to the child's questions and anticipated needs, rather than programmed in a curriculum). Our study represents an initial step toward putting information about sexuality and parenting skills in the hands of therapists and parents to promote the development of sexually healthy families.
We would like to thank the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for supporting this project.
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Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, STD, & TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, GA 30333 (kxm3@ cdc.gov).
*Institute for Behavioral Research and Psychology Department, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602.…