Daughters Say Dads Should Do More to Prepare Them for Sex and Dating

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Dads, do you want your daughters to feel prepared for relationships? Then talk to them. Credit: Getty Images

Well, dads, it looks like you no longer will be able to get out of having "the talk" with your adolescent daughters.

A new study reports that a vast majority of young women feel their dads could have done better in helping to prepare them for sexuality and dating.

Most daughters surveyed report they had little father-daughter communication about sex and felt that their dads could have made unique contributions to their sexual socialization, according to the study, published online this week in the Journal of Family Issues.

"The young women in the study felt that their dads could help them understand men, learn how to talk to and 'handle' men," lead researcher M. Katherine Hutchinson, associate professor at NYU College of Nursing, tells ParentDish in an e-mail. "They also can set the example for how a caring man acts."

Hutchinson says one of the most poignant statements in the survey came from a young woman who grew up without a father in her life. She spoke about how fortunate girls with fathers were because they knew what a good man was, while other girls had to find out on their own.

It may come as no surprise that mothers are typically their kids' primary sexual educator at home. The study notes that mother-teen discussions about sex occur more frequently, with a greater level of comfort and cover a wider range of topics.

The study also found that parent-child sexual communication has been shown to be a powerful influence with regard to teens' sexual beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, and can significantly affect many other factors -- from age of onset to contraceptive use to sexually-transmitted diseases.

"Mother-teen sexual communication has been linked to a later onset of sexual activity, less sexual risk taking, and a more consistent use of condoms and other contraceptives among adolescents," the authors report. "In addition, teen girls who reported greater amounts of mother-daughter sexual communication also reported more negative attitudes toward premarital sex, more negative attitudes toward having sex in the near future and less difficulty in discussing sexual-risk-related topics with boyfriends and male sexual partners."

Further, adolescent girls who reported more frequent mother-daughter "sexual-risk" discussions were significantly less likely to test positive for sexually transmitted infection and less likely to have ever been pregnant.

To date, most research on the topic of parent-child sexual socialization has focused on mother-daughter communication, which is why the authors chose to survey young women, aged 19 to 21, to examine their perceptions about how their dads contributed to their sexual socialization, whether or not they communicated about sexual topics to their daughters and what dads could have done differently.

The researchers discovered that young women's personal experiences with father-daughter sexual communication and socialization varied widely, from "nothing" to "everything." And although some of the young women shared positive experiences about communicating with their dads, many pointed to inadequacies and suggested possible explanations.

Hutchinson tells ParentDish she thinks part of the issue relates to gender norms -- assumptions that the moms are "taking care of it." She says many fathers don't see it as their place, and also that there is an element of discomfort -- embarrassment on the part of all parents in discussing sexual issues with children.

"Any parents, especially fathers, may not have seen this kind of communication with their own parents; they lack ... role models and skills and don't know how and when to start," she says.

The study also characterizes the "daddy's little girl" phenomenon, where fathers often don't see their daughters as growing up and as sexual people.

"It's a shame," Hutchinson says, "because fathers could be real assets to girls in this area."

The authors note that the term "father" needs to be defined broadly and in a way that's appropriate to the culture. It could mean a father figure or adult male caregiver who may be a biological father, stepfather, uncle, grandfather or male partner of a parent, unrelated guardian or custodian. Also, the child may have more than one influential father figure -- who may or may not reside in the same home with the child.

Hutchinson tells ParentDish it's important for parents to realize that talking about sexual things with our kids is not easy.

"It's uncomfortable and awkward especially in the beginning," Hutchinson says. "But that's true of so many aspects of parenting, isn't it? We would never consider tossing our kids the keys and letting them drive a car unprepared, and we really need to take the same stance toward sexuality. We have to start early, lay the groundwork and help them develop the knowledge and skills to safely navigate that part of their lives."

Hutchinson counsels that parents don't have to go it alone, and suggests consulting one of the many books on how to talk to children about sexual topics, or visit the Planned Parenthood or Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) websites.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.