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Quality of parent communication about sex and its relationship to risky sexual behavior among youth in psychiatric care: a pilot study


Helen W. Wilson or Geri R. Donenberg, University of Illinois at Chicago, Institute for Juvenile Research (MC 747), 840 S. Wood St., Chicago, IL, 60612, USA; Tel: 312-996-2657; Email:


Background:  The number of HIV infections among adolescents is increasing, and youth in psychiatric care are at particular risk because of their high rates of risky sexual behavior.

Methods:  As part of a larger longitudinal study examining AIDS-risk behavior among adolescents in psychiatric care, this pilot study investigated the relationship between parent communication about sex and sexual risk-taking among treatment-seeking adolescents. Adolescents reported their risky sexual behavior (e.g., inconsistent condom use, sex with multiple partners), and parents reported how frequently they bring up topics related to sex, HIV/AIDS, and birth control. Parents and adolescents participated together in videotaped discussions of fictional vignettes describing situations related to sex, birth control, and AIDS/HIV. Quality of the parent–teen discussions was coded based on a system developed by Whalen, Henker, Hollingshead, and Burgess (1996) to code AIDS-related discussions.

Results:  Quality but not frequency of parent–teen communication was associated with adolescent sexual risk-taking, and ethnic differences in communication were found.

Conclusions:  Findings from this pilot investigation underscore the importance of studying the relationship between parent–teen communication and risky sexual behavior among troubled youth and provide direction for the development of family-based intervention programs that focus on parental behavior during conversations with teens.