New research shows that girls who have close relationships with their mothers delay becoming sexually active.
The researchers analyzed reports submitted by several thousand pairs of mothers and their 14- and 15-year-old daughters and sons. The data, gathered in 1994-96, was part of a larger study called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
During the years covered by the reports, about 11 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls said they had sex for the first time. But only about half the parents were aware their children had started having sex.
Which kids were most likely to abstain? Girls whose mothers reported being actively engaged in their children's lives, including having frequent talks with their friends' parents; and daughters of mothers who had higher levels of education, the study found.
"Knowing what's going on in their lives, knowing their friends, speaking to their friends' parents and setting high expectations for school completion are strongly associated with a delay of first sex," says Dr. Robert Blum, lead author of the study and director of University of Minnesota's Center for Adolescent Health and Development.
However, the same connection didn't hold true for boys. Boys who had close relationships with their mothers were no more or less likely to start having sex early.
"The study suggests mothers have less of an influence over their sons' decision to have sex than their daughters'," Blum says.
For boys, the influence of fathers, siblings or peers may outweigh maternal influence, according to the study, which appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Mothers of teens who've had sex often complain they repeatedly told their children not to lose their virginity. However, mere warnings aren't enough, Blum explains.
In fact, teens often underestimate the depth of their mothers' disapproval.
About 30 percent of teenage girls whose mothers said they strongly disapproved of their child having sex didn't believe it. About 50 percent of boys didn't believe their mothers disapproved of them having sex, even when their mothers reported they did, Blum's research found.
"One of the things our study strongly suggests is that admonishing kids not to have sex generally has very little impact unless they feel close to their moms," Blum says. "If you don't have that, all the warnings aren't going to matter."
Blum's findings buttress evidence that has been collected for more than a decade about teens' relationships with their mothers, and the link to early sex.
Maxine Weinstein, a professor of population and health at Georgetown University, studied mother-child relationships and their impact on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors in the late 1980s.
"We found that children with a close maternal relationship are more likely to hold attitudes about sex and exhibit sexual behaviors that are consistent with their mother's own attitudes than do children with more distant relationships with their mothers," Weinstein says.
"It seems clear that adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors and their relationships with their mothers are associated with one another, even if we don't yet know precisely how," she adds.
Psychologist Peter Kanaris says he's seen the importance of close family relationships in his private practice in Smithtown, N.Y.
"The observations in the study are borne out in clinical practice," Kanaris says. "Families that are warm and have a connectiveness, families that are involved and have traditions, contribute to a delay and a more thoughtful approach to sexuality on the part of the children."
Still, parents need to remember that teens ultimately make their own decisions. Blum's study found that the impact of close mother-daughter bonds diminishes among older teens. Many teens with the most involved parents and the closest families eventually do decide to become sexually active.
"There are so many other influences -- peers, the media, other cultural attitudes -- that parents have to compete with," Kanaris says. "You can be a so-called perfect parent, even though there really is no such thing, and your child can engage in early sexual activity. We can't control our children's behavior. We merely influence it and hope it's a positive influence."
If parents do discover their child is having sex, it's important to stay calm, Kanaris says.
"It will be hard, but try to use it as an opportunity to communicate about [sex], to find out how [your] child views it, to provide good sex education, to make sure [the] child is protecting [herself] from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," he adds.
To learn more about teens and sex, visit the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. To read Blum's report, visit this University of Minnesota Web site. (To view the study, you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download by clicking here.)