Are Parents Talking About Sex?

A Statewide survey of the nature and scope of sexuality communication in Indiana


With schools' emphasized focus on abstinence-only programs, parents' roles as sexuality educators are more critical then ever. For many parents, one of the most difficult tasks they face is the education of their children about sexuality related issues. Even though some parents are anxious about discussing sexuality with their children, preparing children to be responsible sexual adults may be one of the most important things we can do for future generations.

Parental communication has been linked to positive sexual health outcomes for young people.1-6 Unfortunately, many adolescents are disappointed by the frequency with which their parents talk with them about sexuality and the quality of the conversations they do have. Recent research found that many parents aren't talking to their children soon enough,1 nor are they discussing a broad and inclusive range of sexuality related topics. If they are talking, the conversations appear to be poorly timed or are limited in depth, detail and scope.1

It is unfortunate that parents don't take a more pro-active role in the sexuality education of their children as most young people prefer to get their sexuality information from their parents.7-10 For example, many teens want to hear their parents' ideas about why they should wait to have sex, what it means to be in love, and how to say no. Teens want to hear more than just basic health facts; they want to hear the interpersonal side of sexuality from people they know and trust and who they know love them and are looking out for their well being.11 Teens who had discussed sexual issues with their parents saw them as "the most useful source of information."12

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and its partners surveyed Hoosiers to understand three key areas related to family communication:

  • parental perceptions of when it is best to discuss sexuality related topics with their children,
  • the frequency of discussions about 21 sexuality-related topics, and
  • possible barriers to family communication about sexuality.


Respondents were fairly homogenous with regard to gender and ethnicity and generally representative of the state of Indiana as a whole.

Summary of Key Findings

When to start talking?

Parents indicated that they believed the most appropriate age to begin discussions at home would be when the child was 9-10 years old and believe that school-based instruction about sexuality should begin in 6th or 7th grade.

Three factors about respondents were significant in determining the appropriate age for parents to begin discussing sexuality: age, education and gender. As the respondent's age and education level increased, the suggested age of the child decreased. Likewise, women were more likely than men to suggest that communcation begin at an earlier age.

As for sexuality education in schools, women and those identified as Democrats were more likely to suggest school begin instruction at an earlier grade level.

How often do parents and kids talk?

Most parents had participated in some type of discussion with their child(ren) about sexuality-related issues. Regardless of age level of the children, only one-third of respondents reported having "frequent" discussions with their children. Notably, there was a trend toward increased communication as the child got older. (Table 1)

What families are and aren't talking about

The research suggests that there are some topics which parents feel comfortable addressing with children of all ages: correct names for sex organs, body image, and love. However, many parents are waiting to have discussions about important topics such as puberty until their children are in middle or high school, which may be too late in some cases.

Furthermore, results indicated that there were 13 critical topics which more than 25 percent of the respondants indicated were "rarely" or "never" discussed:

  • communicating with a boy/girlfriend
  • making good decisions about becoming sexually active
  • media images about sexuality
  • religious messages about sexuality
  • peer pressure to have sex
  • sexual health checkups
  • sexually transmitted infections
  • condoms
  • birth control
  • masturbation
  • puberty
  • assault/rape
  • sexual orientation

What are the barriers?

Many parents themselves did not get the level of sex education at home or at school to prepare them to educate their children. In a recent nationwide survey, 41 percent of respondents felt that their own parents did a "poor" job of educating them about sexuality issues. Only 25 percent felt their parents did a "good" or "very good" job.13

Likewise, 47 percent of the same respondents felt that their own school did a "poor" job of educating them about sexuality issues. Only 19 percent felt that their school did a "good" or "very good" job.13 These facts underscore the importance of having comprehensive sexuality education occur in both school and home settings on a regular, ongoing basis.

Table 2 lists the reasons, as given by parents, for not dicussing sexuality with their children. Note the statistically significant gender difference for "my spouse/partner talked to the kids." Men were more likely than women to allow someone else to educate their children about sexuality issues.

Too often parents assume that if their child "wanted to know about sex, they would ask." This idea seems to limit parents' ability to be more proactive about educating their children. A recent study of 15 to 17 year olds nationwide found that the majority of teens want to ask questions, but they are worried about their parents' reactions and think their parents will believe that they are already having sex or are going to have sex.11 Also, teens reported feeling somewhat embarrassed and did not know how to bring up the subject of sex.11

It is important that parents understand this, and take the initiative to start a conversation about sex. Once young people feel heard and understood, they will perceive the lines of communication to be open, and will look to their parents for continued guidance.

If parents arenít talking, who are kids listening to?

When asked about potential sources of influence over teens' sexual knowledge and attitudes, many (73 percent) believed that parents were "the most" or "a strong" influence. Likewise, many (86 percent) perceived the media as having "the most" or "a strong" influence.

While parents believe they are an important influence in their child's understanding of sexuality, many see the media as a more influential factor in shaping young people's attitudes and beliefs about sexuality. Interestingly, only about 60 percent of parents of middle and high school-aged children actually talked to their children about sexuality and the media with regularity. (Figure 1)

While some parents are having regular discussions with their children about sexual images in the media, there are many other sources of information about sex to which young people have regular exposure and access. In addition to the media, a few of the more influential sources are teens' peers, religious messages and their own parents. Unfortunately, parents did not address these other sources of influence (religious messages, peer values, and peer pressure) with frequent regularity, including their own family values. (Figure 2)


Keys to promoting sexuality education in the home:

  1. Alert parents about the need and importance of being their children's primary sexuality educator. Young people consistently express that they want their parents to share sexualityrelated information and values with them so that they can make sense of their world.
  2. Encourage parents to put aside their own feelings and talk to their kids. Silence communicates discomfort and makes young people think that it's better for them to seek information and guidance elsewhere.
  3. Provide parents with increased education and resources to be helpful sexuality educators. Research has indicated that parents sometimes feel as if they are not "qualified" to discuss sexual issues with their children. Parents need support and guidance on where to find the accurate information that is age-appropriate and how to best deliver their messages to their children.
  4. Encourage parents to speak to their children's teachers and school administrators. Parents need to know and understand what their children are learning in school and vocalize their support for comprehensive sex education.


Data was collected in the spring of 2003 by the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) at Ball State University, after being reviewed and approved by the university's Institutional Review Board (IRB). Using 3,506 randomly generated phone numbers, a total of 5,751 telephone calls were made including call-backs to busy numbers, answering machines, and respondent instructions to try again later. There was a total of 547 unusable numbers (i.e. disconnected service, business/government numbers, computer tones) bringing the total of available numbers to 2,959. A total of 830 potential participants were unwilling to participate. This translates to a refusal rate of 28.1 percent. Respondents were asked to participate if they were 18 years of age or older. If they agreed, the 10-minute phone survey ensued in which they were asked a series of demographic questions as well as questions about sexuality-related issues. A total of 518 adult Indiana residents completed the survey; 498 were used for analysis.

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  11. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2002). Communication: A series of national surveys of teens about sex. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
  12. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2003). Talking back: What teens want adults to know about teen pregnancy. Washington, D.C.: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
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