Family Influences on Adolescent Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior

By Miller, Brent C. | The Journal of Sex Research, February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Family Influences on Adolescent Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior

Miller, Brent C., The Journal of Sex Research

A broad range of family variables affect adolescent sexual and contraceptive behavior. Family influences include: (a) the contextual and structural features of families (e.g., parent's education, marital status, sibling composition); (b) family processes, relationships, or practices of parenting (e.g., parental support, control, or supervision of teenagers); and (c) biologic or hereditary transmission of potentially important antecedents (e.g., hormones and the timing of pubertal development).


The structure of a family provides a salient developmental context, in that children grow up usually having primary relationships with one or two biological parents, and with or without older and younger siblings. With respect to parents' marital status, many studies consistently show that living with a single parent is related to adolescents being more likely to have had sexual intercourse (see Miller, Benson, & Galbraith, 2001). Relatedly, many studies show earlier onset of intercourse, and a few studies show less contraceptive use, among teens in single parent families. Several investigators have gone beyond the bivariate relationship to show that single or divorced parents' more permissive sexual attitudes (Thornton & Camburn, 1987), lesser parental supervision, and parents' own dating activity (Whitbeck, Simons, & Kao, 1994) help explain why adolescents in some single parent families are at increased risk of pregnancy. Specifying the single parent mechanisms differently, some investigators have reported that the number of parents' relationship transitions or number of changes in parents' marital status, and time lived with single parents, are related to teens' risk of pregnancy (Capaldi, Crosby, & Stoolmiller, 1996; Miller et al., 1997; Wu & Martinson, 1993).

Having older siblings also is related to higher risk of adolescent pregnancy (see Miller et al., 2001) apparently through younger siblings' earlier onset of sexual intercourse (Rodgers & Rowe, 1988; Rodgers, Rowe, & Harris, 1992; Widmer, 1997). This effect is not due to having older siblings older per se, because the influence on younger sibs' pregnancy risk behaviors is strongest if older siblings have had sexual intercourse, and especially if older sisters have experienced an adolescent pregnancy or birth (East, 1996a, 1996b; East, Felice, & Morgan, 1993; East & Shi, 1997; Widmer, 1997).

Recent studies have found that traumatic child or adolescent experiences, especially those involving sexual abuse, are related to higher adolescent pregnancy risk (see Miller et al., 2001), both through earlier onset of voluntary sexual intercourse (Browning & Laumann, 1997; Miller, Monson, & Norton, 1995; Small & Luster, 1994) and through less consistent use of contraception (Roosa, Tein, Reinholtz, & Angelini, 1997; Stock, Bell, Boyer, & Connell, 1997).

In neighborhoods that are characterized by high residential turnover, poverty, and crime rates, and which are perceived by residents to be dangerous, adolescents tend to have early onset of sexual intercourse, low use of contraception, and high adolescent pregnancy rates (Billy, Brewster, & Grady, 1994; Brewster, 1994; Brewster, Billy, & Grady, 1993; Upchurch, Aneshensel, Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999; see Miller et al., 2001). Parents or parenting adults occupy a social and economic status (SES) in the community, usually reflected by some combination of their education, occupation, and income. There is abundant evidence that parents' SES is related to adolescent pregnancy (see Miller et al., 2001); adolescents whose parents have higher education and income are more likely both to postpone sexual intercourse and to use contraception.


Many researchers have investigated the association between adolescents' sexual behavior and family process variables such as parental warmth, support, parent-child closeness, or connectedness (see Miller et al.

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Family Influences on Adolescent Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior


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