Asking Teens about Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll
Tough, but meaningful conversations
May 15, 2008
DURHAM, N.C. –-Discussing risky behaviors including sex and drug use with children is one of the most important, and frequently one of the most unsettling, aspects of parenting. In new work published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology , Fuqua Professor Gavan Fitzsimons and PhD student Sarah Moore argue that how parents and researchers approach these conversations can have important effects on adolescents’ behavior.
The pair draws on work by leading social science researchers, including Fitzsimons, showing that asking people about some behaviors can actually lead to an increase in those behaviors. “This is really disturbing, because there are many well-intentioned researchers and public health advocates out there doing research that asks our youth about drug use, sex, and suicide,” said Fitzsimons. “But there is virtually no follow-up to find out if or how teens change their behavior after these screenings are completed.”
Such surveys may inadvertently encourage students to engage in the risky behaviors they ask about, because the process of answering questions about behaviors may activate positive attitudes teens have toward those behaviors. Likewise, parents may inadvertently encourage these behaviors by having superficial conversations with their children about risky behavior.
Fitzsimons and Moore suggest this risk can be overcome by having deeper and more direct conversations with children, and asking questions in different ways. “Instead of asking, ‘Will there be drinking at the party tonight?’” Moore said, “it would be better to ask a teen how they plan to respond if they are offered a drink.” In this way parents can engage their children in more meaningful conversations and help them understand ways of avoiding risky behaviors.
“Clearly, these are difficult conversations for parents to initiate, but the way parents guide their children through decisions can be a critical influence on the child’s health and safety,” said Fitzsimons.
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