Published in the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine

Sidebar article for "The Science of Social Welfare"

In urban primary healthcare clinics, some mothers are now learning about how to more effectively talk with their adolescent children about sexual risk behavior, thanks to a study that designed and measured the "Families Talking Together" program. Aimed at African- American and Latino youth aged 11 to 14, the program has been shown to prevent sexual debut among youth.

"We started by looking at existing research of mother-adolescent communication about sex, adolescent sexual behavior, and the relationship between maternal communication and youth sexual behavior," says Assistant Professor Alida Bouris, who was co-investigator on the study, which was published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. "We developed a message where we tell mothers that while it's important to know the potential health consequences of risky sex, specific social reasons are driving young people's decisions to engage in sex, so it's most important to talk about those factors."

In the randomized clinical trial of 264 mother-child dyads in a community- based healthcare clinic in the Bronx, half the mothers received a 30-minute intervention by a social worker while their child was having his or her annual check-up. They also received a packet of focused parenting materials and activities that could help with conversations at home. After the teen's physical exam, the doctor endorsed the program with the mother, and the social worker phoned mothers with two post-intervention booster calls in the following months.

At the beginning of the study, 6 percent of adolescents in both the experimental and control cohorts reported that they had vaginal sexual intercourse at least once. Nine months after the intervention, the reports of sexual behavior for youth increased to 22 percent for youth in the control condition but stayed at 6 percent for youth in the experimental group.

"A small percentage of effective interventions make it into real world settings," Bouris says. "To help bridge this gap, I address four elements when developing parent-based interventions: it should be practical and feasible, it should be able to reach a large number of people in the target population, it should be sustainable over time, and the intervention should be based on strong theories of behavior. Families Talking Together had all of these elements."