A study in the May issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research
examines parent-child communication about sexuality in urban-minority families.
Data was collected from 72 African-American and Latina mothers between the ages of 31 and 40 years as well as 72 of their daughters between the ages of 10 and 13 years. The sample was recruited from the inner-city neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Upper Harlem in New York City between 1996 and 1998.
Researchers gathered information about parent-child communication in urban-minority families by examining: cues and timing of parent-child communication about sexuality over the course of the child's development; content of communication; and approaches adopted by girls and their mothers when discussing sexuality issues.
Participants took part in one of 22 focus groups conducted separately with mothers and daughters. All focus group conversations were audiotaped and transcribed.
Cues That Prompt Conversations about Sexuality
The physical changes that daughters undergo during puberty were common cues for mothers to discuss sexual matters with their daughters.
"She's developing. I notice she's developed pubic hair at the age of 10, her bust was. ... The change is gonna come soon. And so I used to send her for the napkin, and she used to say, 'What's it for?' and I used to explain it to her."
"The first day I got my period, I was like, 'Mommy, I peed blood!' She was like, 'Cause you got your period.' That's when we started talking about sex and everything."
Mothers initiated discussions when they were aware that their daughters were interested in boys.
"My daughter is 12. ... I notice she already had ... boys interested in her. ... She never told me, but I notice it. I know one of the boys. So I advise her, 'Don't lose control. ... He won't be the first and only boy interested. ... So don't go crazy on me.'"
Content of Communication about Sexuality
Facilitators asked girls what their mothers talked about when they discussed sexuality.
One girl explained what her mother told her about how girls get pregnant.
"A boy tells her how much he likes her and, in return, she likes him. Then, she gets pregnant, and he says, 'I'll never leave you. I love you.' But he never comes back and leaves her all by herself to care for their child. And to survive, she has to rely on Welfare."
Another girl explains how her mother told her about remaining a virgin.
"My mom tells me that I shouldn't let anyone touch me. And how special my wedding day is going to be. Otherwise, if I'm 17 or 18 ... and ... have a baby, my man will cheat on me because men's hormones rule them and they only think of a hundred different ways to have sex."
One mother explained how she taught her daughter to avoid sexual encounters.
"Your father shouldn't even touch you. If he does, you should ... tell me. No one should be touching you. No one. You can talk to boys to be polite, but no one should touch you. If they do, tell me immediately."
Respective Approaches to Parent-Child Discussions about Sexuality
Analyses indicated that African-American mothers focused their discussions on preventing pregnancy and disease and thus sought information about sexual activity, whereas Latina mothers tended to focus their discussions on preventing all sexual contact and thus sought information about relationship development.
"Let's face it, they're going to have sex. That's just a fact. It's up to me to convince her to take her pill each day ... to use a condom. He's not going to look out for her."
"If you like a boy, ... tell me ... cause I'm your mother. I am everything for you. When you are older and become a professional, you'll have a boyfriend, and get married. But for the time being, if you have a boyfriend, you have to tell me because I'm your friend."
The findings show that urban minority mothers and daughters discussed sexual matters but that they experienced considerable difficulty doing so. The authors note that mothers, especially Latina mothers, demonstrated ambivalence about accepting their daughter's developing sexual maturity. For this reason, many indefinitely postponed discussions about sexuality. The authors also note that when conversations did occur, mothers rarely acknowledged the positive aspects of sexuality outside the context of harm.
The authors recommend that other adults to whom girls already turn, including relatives and adult friends, should be encouraged to make themselves available to girls for information about sexuality. They suggest that involving others in the communication process might remedy problems associated with strains in parent-child relationships during the pubertal years. They go on to say that, ultimately, interventions could target adult women trusted by mothers within the community or a community sector.
For more information: Lucia F. O' Sullivan, et al., "Mother-Daughter Communication about Sex among Urban African-American and Latino Families," Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 269-92.