Although it is difficult to confirm that controlling mothers and fathers cause kids to have more sex, the findings suggest it is wise to give children freedom, said Rebekah Levine Coley, lead author of a new study of nearly 5,000 U.S. teenagers. Coley is an associate professor of applied developmental and educational psychology at Boston College.
"Warm, more democratic relationships — in which parents do not use negative and psychologically controlling behaviors — could help parents to communicate values, increase adolescents' identification with their parents, help youth to develop healthy decision-making skills and also keep youth away from negative peer influences," Coley said.
According to the researchers, more than two of every three American teens has sexual intercourse before age 19.
Researchers have previously studied how family life affects teens, but the findings were "suggestive but not definitive" and did not reveal which techniques work the best, Coley said.
In the new study, Coley and colleagues examined the results of an annual survey of American teens born between 1980 and 1984. The researchers looked at the survey results for 4,980 teens and used a number of statistical techniques to try to pinpoint the effects of various parenting styles.
They report their findings in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Regular family activities — "things like eating dinner together as a family or engaging in fun activities or religious activities together" — seemed to make sexual activity less likely, Coley said.
Children also seemed to be less sexually active if their parents did not engage in "negative and psychologically controlling behaviors."
However, the research did not confirm a direct cause-and-effect relationship between parenting styles and teen sexual activity. Researchers would be unable to find such a relationship unless they randomly assigned different families to raise children, Coley said.
The new study offers a "simple and clear message" about the importance of parenting, said Don Operario, a professor at Oxford University in England. Operario studies health and social issues.
While some recent research has focused on how the media and peers affect the sex lives of adolescents, he said, this study "reminds us of the foundational role of parents in determining whether their teens engage in risky sexual behaviors."
What should parents do? "This research is not necessarily saying to parents: 'Go and talk to your teens about sex and counsel them on condom use, pregnancy, HIV and delaying sex,'" Operario said. "It is saying: 'Support your teens, spend time with them, be less critical and controlling and more nurturing in their adolescent development. This, in turn, can help them make more informed, safe decisions about sexual activity.'"