Breaking the Silence: Better Parent/Child Conversations About Sex and Sexuality

For most of us, parent-child conversations about sexuality are pretty uncomfortable, whether you’re the parent or the child. But School of Family Life professor Laura Padilla-Walker says there are ways families can avoid that tension. In this year’s recent Cutler Lecture, hosted annually by our college, Dr. Padilla-Walker discussed her research on the ways parents teach teens about sexuality, and what it revealed about more effective ways of having those conversations.

How Not to Have Those Conversations

Outside research suggests that highly religious parents often wait the longest and feel the least comfortable when they speak with their children about sexuality (which is especially true for Catholic, Jewish, and LDS families). In Dr. Padilla-Walker’s research, her students, who were predominantly LDS, reported that their parents didn’t discuss sex often and didn’t always handle the conversation well. LDS parents tended to focus on abstinence and the sacredness of sex, but 46% of her survey participants reported that their parents seemed embarrassed during conversations about sexuality. Roughly 24% mentioned that their parents used fear tactics as part of those discussions.

LDS sexuality conversations
These percentages come from a survey distributed by Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life.

What’s more, many people in Dr. Padilla-Walker’s sample (48% of female respondents, 33% of male respondents) reported that they had experienced anxiety concerning their sexuality. That anxiety wasn’t correlated with what their parents said but with how they led conversations about sex. When parents seemed embarrassed or when kids had to initiate conversations about sex, those children had less healthy views of sexuality. When parents said sex was good or normal (without employing any fear tactics), their kids had healthier views of sexuality.

But where exactly should parents begin?

How to Have Those Conversations

Improve the Parent-Child Relationship

Dr. Padilla-Walker said that it’s important to establish a “culture of openness” and that improving the parent-child relationship is the first step. As parents grow closer to their children by praising them, spending time with them, and keeping an open dialogue, conversations about sex will become more comfortable and natural.

Improve the Frequency and Timing of Conversations About Sexuality

She also suggested ways that parents can improve the frequency and timing of conversations about sexuality. It’s not enough for parents to initiate one big sex talk with their children, Dr. Padilla-Walker said, and parents shouldn’t postpone those conversations until their children are sexually active or curious. Rather, parents and children should discuss sexuality often and early, while parents “pre-arm” their kids.

Focus on the Positives

Finally, Dr. Padilla-Walker recommended that parents focus on the positives of waiting to become sexually active, as well as the positive aspects of sexuality in marriage.

Our friends at the Comprehensive Clinic provide these additional instructions, in a separate blog post:

  • avoid using slang, euphemisms, or metaphors when talking about sex
  • Give your children age-appropriate sexual education
  • avoid “reactive sex ed”

“Parents are the scaffolding that will help their children learn about healthy sexuality,” Dr. Padilla-Walker concluded. Adolescents will be better off when their parents help them build a healthy framework.

Dr. Padilla-Walker’s full lecture is available here.


Cutler Lecture: Breaking the Silence: Proactive Parent-Child Communication about Healthy Sexuality

It’s almost time for the 2017 Virginia F. Cutler Lecture, one of the college‘s most prestigious annual lectures. This year’s speaker is Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, a School of Family Life professor who studies parenting and media influences during adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Dr. Padilla-Walker’s lecture is titled “Breaking the Silence: Proactive Parent-Child Communication about Healthy Sexuality.” She will present current research findings on parent-child communication about sexuality and will focus on primary stumbling blocks to quality communication. The lecture will also compare LDS and non-LDS families on communication about sexuality using both quantitative and qualitative data. Suggestions for how to improve communication and promote healthy sexuality will be highlighted. Light refreshments will follow the lecture.

The lecture series is named after Virginia F. Cutler, former dean of the College of Family Living (now the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences). Dr. Cutler cared deeply about women and people in other nations, and her career took her across the globe as she served people in Thailand, Indonesia and Ghana.




Teens’ Self Esteem is Boosted Through Helping Strangers, New Study Finds

One may be surprised to learn that adolescents’ self esteem is enhanced by helping strangers. A study just published by School of Family Life professor Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker and her student Xinyuan Fu shows that teens with good self-esteem are more likely to help people they didn’t know, and teens who helped others were more likely to experience confidence boosts after that service. Padilla-Walker and Fu theorize, as a result of these findings, that the relation between self-esteem and prosocial behavior goes both ways.

The study will be published in the Journal of Adolescence in June. It looked at 681 adolescents of various races and from families of various income and education levels over four years. Interestingly, it found that no such bidirectional relation existed between self-esteem and prosocial behavior toward friends and family. It was only in serving others not of a teen’s acquaintance that a difference in self-esteem was noted. “[Our] findings..highlight the complexity of adolescent development of self-esteem and the multidimensional nature of pro-social behavior,” says Padilla-Walker.

While these results may or not be surprising, she notes that: “there is something unique about helping those that teens do not know that helps them to feel better about themselves, but helping family and friends does not facilitate this same outcome. It suggests that if we feel a degree of competence, we are more likely to go outside of our comfort zone and help those with whom we don’t have a relationship. I hope that parents and educators will implement helping and service into intervention and prevention programs with the understanding that helping others can boost self-esteem during the teen years.”

Little girl crying

Why are Self-Esteem and Service Important?

Why are these results important? Research shows that low self-esteem tends to cause teens to opt out of things like trying out for teams, at best, and increase the likelihood of doing drugs and binge drinking, at worst.  The beauty product company Dove recently released a report in the Huffington Post showing that “…low body-esteem is causing the majority of women (85%) and girls (79%) to opt out of important life activities—such as trying out for a team or club, and engaging with family or loved ones—when they don’t feel good about the way they look. Additionally, seven in 10 girls with low body-esteem say they won’t be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision if they aren’t happy with the way they look, while nine out of 10 (87%) women will stop themselves from eating or will otherwise put their health at risk.”

A 2014 study from JAMA Pediatrics revealed that boys were also concerned with physical appearance and that those who were were more likely to do drugs and binge drink. Clearly, self esteem is of paramount importance.

What to do, then?

girl smiling With this being said, how can parents and educators of teens help improve those teens’ self-esteem through service to strangers?

What Else?

Dr. Padilla-Walker plans to further her research in a number of ways: “This summer we’re looking at different types of helping, including defending, supporting, inclusion, physical helping, and sharing. We also are looking at how prosocial behaviors differ across the entire span of adolescence, as we have rich longitudinal data spanning ten years! It will be exciting to see what happens developmentally and how family and other influences impact changes over time.”

What tips do you have for improving teen self-esteem or providing service?