Communication Studies, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 6-2014


Holman, A. (2014). How Adolescents Perceive their Parents' Communication about Sex: Towards Reducing Adolescents Sexual Risk (unpublished doctoral dissertation) University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Communication Studies, Under the Supervision of Professor Jody Koenig Kellas. Lincoln, Nebraska: June, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Amanda Holman


The “sex talk” is often one of the most challenging conversations for parents and children during adolescence. Research has established that parent-adolescent communication about sex can greatly reduce adolescents’ sexual risk (Guilamo-Ramos et al., 2012; Miller, Benson, & Galbraith, 2001). However, many parents still avoid these conversations due to uncertainty or lack of confidence in how to best educate their children on topics such as sexual health and relationships. Plus, little is known about family communication about sex from the adolescent perspective. In order to develop more comprehensive strategies for parents to engage in these challenging conversations, the present dissertation examined adolescents’ perceptions of parent-adolescent communication about sex, including what adolescents report that their parents say about sex, the degree to which these messages are perceived as effective and competent by adolescents, and how parental messages as well as the larger family environment relates to sexual risk.

One hundred and fifty-nine high school adolescents (M age = 16.66 years) completed an online survey about actual and ideal parent-child conversations about sex, as well as adolescents’ perceptions of attitudes, behaviors, and family communication climate related to sexual risk. Through inductive analyses, six parent-adolescent conversation themes emerged, including safety, underdeveloped/unsuccessful, warning/threat, no talk, comprehensive-talk, and wait. Adolescents’ perceived comprehensive-talk and safety conversations as most competent and effective compared to other conversation themes. In addition, results revealed five themes related to ways parents could have made the conversations ideal, including no change, be more specific/provide guidance, talk to me, collaborate, and appropriateness. Besides assessing these themes as separate units of information, further analyses revealed distinct patterns between the actual and ideal conversation themes. The analyses also showed that perceived parental communication competence and effectiveness were the strongest negative predictors of adolescents’ permissive sexual attitudes and sexual risk-taking; whereas peer communication frequency was a significant positive predictor in adolescents’ permissive sexual attitudes and sexual risk-taking. Overall, family communication climate (e.g. conversation orientation and conformity orientation) was unrelated to adolescents’ sexual risk. The implications for these findings are provided, as well as limitations and future recommendations for researchers and parents.

Advisor: Jody Koenig Kellas