By Maggie Fox
Parents who smoke and drink and otherwise fail to take care of their health are influencing their children to do likewise — but they may also be somehow giving them the nod to have sex, researchers said on Friday.
Teenagers whose parents smoked were about 50 percent more likely to have had sex by the time they were 15, the researchers reported.
“Adolescents whose parents engage in risky behavior, especially smoking, are especially likely to be sexually active,” Esther Wilder of Lehman College in New York and Toni Terling Watt of Southwest Texas State University wrote in their report.
“They are also more likely to smoke, drink, associate with substance-using peers and participate in delinquent activity,” the report, published in the health affairs journal Milbank Quarterly, concluded.
“This is not to say that parents who smoke are causing their children to become sexually active,” Wilder said in a telephone interview.
“You’d want to go in and see what is going on in these households. It may have to do with things such as parents who are smoking are not eating as healthy and it might be they might not be doing other things. Who knows what all the mechanisms are? I suspect they are very complex.”
The two sociologists looked at data from a large national survey called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which includes information on sexual behavior for 19,000 13- to 18-year-olds. Parents and teens were interviewed at length in person for the survey.
About 31 percent of parents were smokers and that was the strongest predictor of risky behavior among their teen-age children, Wilder said.
Obvious associations have been well known. For instance, teens whose parents drank heavily tended to drink as well, and when teens drink they tend also to have 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,” Wilder and Watt wrote.
Experts have long told parents that children will act on what they see parents do, not what they are told, but the survey found some surprising cause-and-effect links.
Wilder and Watt found that boys were more likely to have sex if their parents failed to use seatbelts — but not girls.
Basically, the parents are teaching by example that risk-taking is desirable. “If parents engage in risky behavior, it sets up a chain of events that encourages other kinds of risky behavior as well,” Wilder said.
The survey found what other experts have said — that close supervision of teens makes them behave more safely. This means being at home when they come home from school, being at home with them in the evening and asking them about their activities.
But if parents smoked or drank heavily, the influence of that behavior outweighed the benefits of supervision, Wilder said. “It persists independent of parental supervision, race, religiosity and income,” Wilder said.
She said the findings were especially important because the United States has “exceptionally high rates of adolescent pregnancy and abortion. ... In 1999, nearly half of high-school students reported having had sexual intercourse and 6 percent said they had been pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant,” they wrote.