Public Release: 

Parents' risky behavior rubs off on children

Center for Advancing Health

Parents who smoke and drink and generally do not take care of their health may influence their children to do the same, according to a new study that links parents' risky behavior to early sexual activity in teens.

"Adolescents whose parents engage in risky behavior, especially smoking, are especially likely to be sexually active. They are also more likely to smoke, drink, associate with substance-using peers and participate in delinquent activity," say study co-authors Esther I. Wilder of Lehman College and Toni Terling Watt, Ph.D., of Southwest Texas State University.

Adolescents of parents who smoked were around 50 percent more likely to have had sex. They were also more likely to have had sex by age 15, Wilder and Watt report in the September issue of the Milbank Quarterly.

Teens with parents who drink heavily tend to drink as well, and teen alcohol use is closely linked to the early onset of sexual activity, they explain. For boys, but not girls, parents' failure to wear seatbelts is associated with a modest increased likelihood of adolescent sex.

"Because parents serve as important role models for their children, it stands to reason that parents who exhibit unsafe behaviors are especially likely to have children with similar tendencies," the researchers say.

In contrast, high levels of supervision by parents resulted in a reduced likelihood of sexual activity in some children. Boys whose fathers are present at key times of the day--when the leave and return from school and bed time--are less likely to be sexually active, as are girls whose mothers are present at those times. However, mothers' presence has no impact on boys' likelihood of being sexually active and fathers' presence has no impact on girls.

The researchers used data collected for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which includes information on sexual behavior for approximately 19,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12. The data set also provides information on risky health behaviors, such as smoking, drinking heavily and not using a seatbelt, for one parent in each teen's household.

Among the respondents, 37 percent of girls and 39 percent of boys reported having had sex. Nearly two-thirds of these adolescents used a contraceptive, most often a condom, at first intercourse.

According to Wilder and Watt, however, unsafe parental behavior had little or no effect on whether the sexually active teen uses contraceptives during his or her sexual encounter.

The researchers found little to explain why some teenagers use contraceptives and others do not, although the study did show that one of the strongest predictors was the year in which the adolescent first had sex. Teenagers who first had sex in 1991 or later were more likely to use contraceptives, likely reflecting the greater awareness of sexually transmitted diseases inspired, in part, by the AIDS activism movement.

Teenagers whose parents engage in risky health behaviors are also more likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, associating with peers who use drugs and other delinquent behavior such as stealing and damaging property, the study shows.

"Given the importance of parental risk in explaining both early sexual activity and a host of problem behaviors linked to contraceptive nonuse," the researchers say, "public health campaigns that urge parents to act responsibly by engaging in health-conscious behaviors are likely to help reduce precocious and unsafe sexual activity among teens."


Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Esther Wilder at (718) 960-1128 or
Milbank Quarterly: Contact Bradford H. Gray, Ph.D., at (212) 822-7287.

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