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CONTEXT: Parent-adolescent communication is associated with increased adolescent contraceptive use. However, studies of this association are limited by their lack of examination of the communication process, reliance on cross-sectional designs and infrequent comparison of parent and adolescent perspectives. Examining communication in black families is particularly important, given the high pregnancy rate among black adolescents.

METHODS: Between December 2007 and March 2008, a total of 21 focus groups were conducted with 53 black families (68 parents and 57 adolescents) in Pennsylvania. Separate groups were held for males and females, and for parents and adolescents. The discussion guide explored family communication about sexual health topics, including contraception, family planning and abortion. Sessions were audio-recorded; data were transcribed and analyzed using a grounded theory approach to content analysis and the constant comparison method.

RESULTS: Five key themes emerged among both parents and adolescents. First, discussions about contraception were indirect and framed in terms of the need to avoid negative consequences of sex. Second, contraceptive knowledge was low. Third, parents more often reported helping male adolescents get condoms than helping females get contraceptives. Fourth, discussions emphasized planning for the future over contraception. Finally, negative attitudes toward abortion were prevalent.

CONCLUSIONS: Parent-adolescent communication interventions should improve contraceptive knowledge, help parents understand the harmful effects of gender biases in information dissemination, and provide mothers and fathers with communication skills tailored to enhance the role they play in their adolescents’ sexual development.