Background: Parental guidance during adolescence is critical and may reduce high risk behaviors. Parents’ perceptions of their adolescents’ sexual behaviors may influence the guidance they provide. Thus, we evaluated factors which may impact these perceptions.
Methods: As part of a larger study, parents and their adolescents aged 14-17 years reported on parenting and sexual behaviors. We evaluated the relationship of demographics (adolescent age and gender, Spanish parental interview); adolescent self-report of sexual experience; parent and adolescent report of parental monitoring; and parent-adolescent conversation topics to parents’ perceptions of their adolescents’ sexual experience. Within these categories, multivariate logistic regression was performed, with significant variables placed into a common model. Parental perceptions were dichotomized into no experience beyond kissing, or any sexual contact.
Results: Of the 180 parent-adolescent dyads, 92% of parents and 63% of adolescents were female and 50% of parents completed the interview in Spanish. Fifty-nine percent of parents believed that their adolescents had engaged in sexual contact. Parents were more likely to think that younger adolescents were less sexually experienced (p < .0001). Parents’ perceptions were related to their adolescents’ self-report (p < .0001). Those parents who provided greater indirect monitoring (p <. 01) and whose adolescents perceived them to provide greater monitoring when with peers (p < .01) believed their adolescents to be less experienced. There were no significant associations for conversations. In the common model, age, adolescent self-report, and greater parental indirect monitoring were related to perceptions of adolescent sexual experience.
Conclusions: Parental perception of adolescent behavior is in part driven by actual behavior; however, younger adolescents and those adolescents whose parents monitor them were perceived as less likely to be engaging in sexual behaviors. Future research should examine how perceptions change over time and how perceptions influence parental behaviors, such as provision of anticipatory guidance.