Family Matters

Who Are Teens’ Sexual Role Models? Turns Out, It’s Their Parents

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Parents may think their teens aren’t listening to them about anything, let alone sex, but new research shows that 45% of teens consider their parents — not their friends or celebrities — their sexual role models.

The study from the University of Montreal upends conventional wisdom that teens put no stock in what their parents think. More teens relied on parental advice than on guidance from their friends, who influenced just 32% of survey respondents. Even fewer — 15% — cared what celebrities thought.

For lead author Jean-Yves Frappier, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Montreal and president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, the study’s findings reinforced his belief that parents need to stay involved in their kids’ lives even if it seems like their teens would prefer they get lost.

Even many of Frappier’s medical colleagues have dismissed parental influence during the teen years as a lost cause. “People are surprised parents are role models,” he says. “But I’m not. Parents are the most important role models for teens.”

(MORE: Study: Teen Girls More Likely to Have Risky Sex than Teen Boys)

That parents matter comes as a big surprise to moms, 78% of whom responded that they believed their children looked to their friends for guidance on sexual behavior. “The mothers think that friends are role models, so that means that the parents kind of quit,” says Frappier, who presented the results at the Canadian Paediatric Society’s annual conference last month. “They talk to their teens and the teens turn them away, so they think there’s no use. But that is not the case.”

The survey canvassed 1,171 teens between 14 and 17 years old and 1,139 mothers, asking about sources of sexual-health information, communication about sexual health, family functioning and sexual activities. Researchers probed attitudes toward love, relationships, dating and contraception, then asked whom teens perceived as their role models on those issues. Teens could choose more than one; although parents and friends garnered the most votes, 15% selected music/movie celebrities, and 7% indicated they turned to sports/television celebrities for guidance.

When teens look to their parents for the scoop on sexual health, fewer are sexually active: 17% of boys and 22% of girls who said their parents were role models reported sexual activity, vs. 40% of boys and 39% of girls who said they were not influenced by their mom and dad.

What might be most significant is the third of teens who reported having no role models. They were more likely to be sexually active than those who relied on their parents but less likely than those who specifically excluded their parents.

(MORE: Obese Teens Are More Likely to Smoke, Have Riskier Sex)

The bottom line? Talk about sex with your teens, even if they appear to be tuning you out. The more sexuality is discussed, the less teens will be sexually active. That doesn’t mean sitting down and announcing a family conclave on Sexuality 101. Take the opportunity to use a newspaper or magazine article or a television show to spark a discussion about values. Teens may roll their eyes and feign annoyance, but they may come back days or weeks later with a related question.

“Parents are more important than they think,” says Frappier. “It’s the role of the teen to be autonomous and turn away, but it is the role of the parent to remain a role model.”