New Directions in the Psychology of Human Sexuality:
Research and Theory

Chapter 25:
An Evaluation of Adolescent Patterns of
Sexual Self-Disclosure to Parents and Friends

Dennis R. Papini, Frank L. Farmer, and Steven M. Clark
University of Arkansas
William E. Snell, Jr.
Southeast Missouri State University

           

Abstract

Chapter 25 describes a study that was conducted to examine adolescent's sexual self‑disclosure to their parents and friends. The sample consisted of 169 senior high school students. The results revealed that adolescents engage in more sexual disclosure with their friends than with their parents. In addition, significantly greater sexual disclosure was reported between adolescents and same‑sex, rather than opposite‑sex, parent and friend. The only exception to this finding was that no significant differences were reported in male and female sexual self‑disclosure to a best female friend. Additional regression analyses revealed that adolescent sexual disclosure to parents was strongly associated with adolescent perceptions of the openness and adaptiveness of the family context. By contrast, sexual disclosure to friends was strongly related to the adolescent's emotional individuation from the family. The discussion focuses on sexual socialization during adolescence.


       
Acknowledgments.  This research was supported in part by a grant from the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Arkansas, Project ARK01303.   Gratitude is extended to the editor of Journal of Adolescent Research and two anonymous reviewers for their peer-review commentary (this chapter was previously published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, 1988, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, pp. 387-401).

        Proper citation:  Papini, D. R., Farmer, F. L., Clark, S. M., & Snell, W. E., Jr.  (2002).  Chapter 25:  An evaluation of adolescent patterns of sexual self-disclosure to parents and friends
 In W. E. Snell, Jr. (Ed.), New directions in the psychology of human sexuality:  Research and theory. Cape Girardeau, MO: Snell Publications. WEB: http://cstl-cla.semo.edu/snell/books/sexuality/sexuality.
 


Chapter 25
An Evaluation of Adolescent Patterns of Sexual
Self‑Disclosure to Parents and Friends

 

In recent years social scientists have begun to study sexual socialization during adolescence (Fox, 1981). Self‑disclosure is an important feature of the individual's socialization, shaped within the family context, and generalized to other interpersonal relationships (Chelune, 1979; Cozby, 1973). The willingness of college students to sexually self‑disclose to parents and best friends has recently been investigated (Papini, Snell, Belk, & Clark. 1998; Yarber & Greer, 1986), and the implications of these findings may open new avenues of research into the sexual socialization of adolescents.

 

A description of how the social network of parents and friends influences the adolescent sexual socialization process is needed. The role of sexual self‑disclosure may assume greater importance during the adolescent years, as sexual maturity is realized. No doubt physical changes require some adjustments by the family and friendship contexts in which adolescent development is embedded (Hill & Holmbeck, 1987). A variety of researchers have demonstrated that patterns of family communication are disrupted as the adolescent individuates from the family of origin (Grotevant & Cooper, 1983, 1996; Papini & Sebby, 1987; Steinberg, in press). The present study was conducted to examine the familial and individual developmental factors that influence sexual disclosure between adolescents and their parents and friends.

 

Sexual Self‑Disclosure to Parents

 

Research has indicated that parent‑adolescent communication about sexual topics is associated with adolescent sexual attitudes (Fisher, 1986a, 1987) and behavior (Darling & Hicks, 1982; Fox, 1981). This research showed that sexual communication between parents and children tends to forestall sexual activity, limit the number of sexual partners, and increase effective contraceptive use among sexually active daughters (Furstenberg, Herceg‑Baron, Shea, & Webb, 1986; Lewis, 1973; Polit‑OHara & Kahn, 1985; Spanier, 1977). However, the role of family processes in adolescent sexual disclosure to their parents and friends remains relatively unexplored.

 

Fisher (1996a, 1987) reported that frequent communication about sexual topics among Family members was related to greater similarity in sexual values and attitudes between parents and college‑aged children However, measures of the general openness of family communication patterns were not associated with the adoption of parental sexual values and attitudes. These findings may help explain wily adolescents who talk to their parents about sexual concerns exhibit more responsible attitudes towards their emerging sexuality. Thus, the socialization of adolescent sexuality may be influenced by sexual communication in the family context.

 

While the quality of family communication has not appeared to be related to similarity in pare parent‑adolescent  sexual values and attitudes, there is a strong rationale for expecting the quality of family communication to be related to an adolescent's sexual disclosure. Fox (1980, 1981) found that adolescent sexual development was related to the emotional closeness, the amount and quality of communication. and the affective quality of the parent‑adolescent relationship (see also Miller. McCoy, Olson, & Wallace, 1986; Smith, Weinman, & Mumford, 1982).  Gartield and Morgenthau (1976) found that sexual communication with parents was enhanced when adolescents perceived the parent to be open, responsive, and sensitive.

 

Other researchers have reported that adolescents who perceive their parents as being warm and nurturant engage in significantly more self‑disclosure about a variety of topics (Snock & Rothblum, 1979). Adolescents from the most affectionate families were found to disclose more not only with their parents, but with peers as well. Within families, a preponderance of studies (Balswick & Balkwell, 1977; Rivenbark, 1971; Wiebe & Williams, 1972: Yang & Hwang, 1980) has demonstrated that adolescents prefer to disclose personal information to their mother. Thus, sexual disclosure seems to be influenced by the affective and communicative quality of the family context.

 

While various individual and family qualities are associated with self‑disclosure, several important questions still remain unanswered about sexual disclosure during adolescence. First, what is the relationship between gender and sexual disclosure? Research reported by Davidson, Balswick, and Halverson (1980) suggested that adolescent sexual disclosure might not resemble self‑disclosures about less threatening topics. These authors also reported that males were more likely than females to disclose sexual concerns with their parents and peers. By comparison, females were more likely than males to disclose general and personal information to their parents and peers. Gender differences reported in the literature must be tempered by the realization that adolescent disclosure may be unique to specific topics.

 

A second issue concerns adolescent sexual disclosures to their male and female friends. Any adequate treatment of adolescent sexual socialization would seem to require a greater understanding of the role that peers play in this developmental process. Specifically, it is crucial that the competitive versus complementary nature of parent and peer influences on sexual self‑disclosure be explored.

 

Sexual Self‑Disclosure to Friends

 

Research investigating the influence of parents and peers on adolescent problem behaviors revealed that both parents and peers influence adolescent alcohol use (Biddle, Bank, & Marlin 1980), cigarette smoking (Chassin, Presson, Sherman, Montello, & McGrew, 1986), and sexual values (Fisher, 1986a). In general, these studies have indicated that peer influence is greatest among 15‑ to 17‑year‑old middle‑adolescents (Berndt. 1979; Fisher, 1986b). With respect to sexual socialization, the physical and cognitive changes of middle‑adolescence may lead to more involved and intimate communication about sexual concerns that threaten to disrupt the already delicate balance in family relationships. This disruption may set in motion the separation-individuation process of adolescence (Blos, 1967).

 

       During the separation-individuation process adolescents emotionally separate and distance themselves from the family, and establish a new sense of self through interaction with peers (Steinberg, in press). During this time, peers may gradually assume an important role in the sexual socialization process as adolescents form same and opposite‑sex friendships (Billy & Udry, 1985). This is not to say that the family context is unimportant to the sexual socialization of adolescents, but rather that the peer and family context may complement the development of adaptive patterns of sexual disclosure.

 

For example, Daugherty and Burger (1,984) demonstrated that female sexual attitudes were more similar to those of their peers, while male sexual attitudes were more similar to those of their parents. Again, both parents and peers appear to be important agents in the sexual socialization process during adolescence. Additional research by Snell, Belk, Papini, and Clark (1988) revealed that men were more willing than women to disclose information about their sexual attitudes, values, and preferences with an intimate partner, and both men and women were willing to disclose emotional feelings about sexual aspects of their lives to an intimate partner.

 

A companion study (Papini. Snell, Belk, & Clark, 1988) revealed that the willingness of college students to engage in sexual self‑disclose was predicted by measures of the affective quality of family relationships, the extent to which the individual had achieved individuation, and the individual's level of self‑esteem and self‑consciousness. This research indicated that a young adult's willingness to engage in sexual self‑disclosure with peers has origins in both familial and individual developmental factors, especially those factors related to the quality of adolescent individuation.

 

Whether a similar pattern of findings would characterize the sexual disclosure of adolescents remains uncertain. Research on adolescent disclosure indicated that female adolescents engage in more self‑revelation to peers than did male adolescents (Norrell, 1984). Others researchers (Sparks, 1976) have found a positive relationship between adolescent self‑esteem and self‑disclosure. Thus, familial and individual developmental characteristics may be associated with self‑disclosure to both parents and friends during adolescence.

 

In summary, the literature on adolescent sexual disclosure suggests several predictions for the present investigation. First, it was anticipated that adolescents will sexually disclose more to friends than to parents. This prediction was derived from previous work showing that early adolescents and youth disclose more to their parents, but that middle‑adolescents were more peer oriented in their disclosures. Second, it was expected that adolescents would exhibit gender‑related patterns of sexual self‑disclosure, with males disclosing more to fathers and male friends and females revealing more to mothers and female friends. This expectation was based on the aforementioned studies which indicated that males and females temper their disclosures in response to the gender of the disclosure recipient.

 

Third, patterns of sexual disclosure to parents and friends were expected to be related in specific ways to measures of family functioning and individual development. More specifically, positive affect and open communication styles within the family were anticipated to predict sexual disclosure to parents. The extent to which individuals had successfully individuated from the family of origin was expected to be associated with greater disclosure to both parents and friends. The individual's sense of self‑esteem was also expected to be positively related to sexual self-disclosure. Finally, it was anticipated that adolescent attitudes about sexual responsibility would be negatively related to sexual self‑disclosure to both their parents and friends. This prediction was based on the rationale that adolescents adopt responsible sexual attitudes through interactions with parents and peers, and later confine sexual disclosure to a specific intimate partner.

 

METHOD

 

Subjects

 

Participants for this study were students enrolled in health courses at a public senior high school in a largely rural Midwestern state. The health course was required for all students, and the collection of the data was accomplished during the Fall term. The sample consisted of 185 students in grades 10‑12 between 14 and 18 years of age. Unfortunately, 16 students returned questionnaires that were incomplete or otherwise unusable and were subsequently dropped from the analyses here reported. The age distribution of the 169 subjects who comprised the final sample is presented by grade and gender in Table 1.

 

An examination of the family background of participants in this study revealed that parents were relatively well educated, with adolescents reporting that both mothers and fathers had at least some college (63 and 76 percent, respectively). The occupational titles reported for mothers and fathers supported the educational data, with most participants indicating that their father was employed in a white‑collar position. These educational and occupational trends are undoubtedly a reflection of the nearby presence of a major state university, and do not reflect the state's population demographics. The majority of participants came from two‑parent families (87%) in which the mother was employed outside of the home (79%). The average age of mothers and fathers was reported to be 40 and 41, respectively. All of the participants were Caucasian.

 

TABLE 1

Mean Age, Standard Deviation, and Frequency of Subjects across Gender and Grade in School


 

 

Grade

Gender

 Statistics

10

11

12

Total


Females

 

 

 

 

 

 

X

15.17

16.08

17.11

16.39

 

SD

.37

.47

.52

.97

 

N

30

40

33

103

Males

 

 

 

 

 

 

X

15.23

16.10

17.23

16.16

 

SD

.43

.46

.56

.90

 

N

17

19

30

66

Total

 

 

 

 

 

 

X

15.19

16.08

17.17

16.25

 

SD

.39

.46

.55

.93

 

N

47

59

63

169


 

Data Collection Procedure

 

All of the subjects received packets of questionnaires to be filled out at home and returned to their health teacher. A total of 275 packets were distributed and 169 were completed for a 61 percent return rate. The packets contained a battery of measures selected to assess sexual self‑disclosure and a variety of familial and individual characteristics.

 

Measures

 

In order to assess the relationship between adolescent sexual disclosure and family and individual developmental characteristics, a multivariate approach was undertaken in which data was collected from three domains of adolescent behavioral sexual self‑disclosure, quality of family functioning, and individual psychosocial and cognitive characteristics. Cronbach's alpha coefficients for each of the measures employed in this Study are presented in Table 2. Inspection of the coefficients in Table 2 reveals that all of the measures possessed a high degree of internal consistency.

 

Sexual Self‑Disclosure Scale (SSDS; Snell, Belk, Papini, & Clark, 1989).  The SSDS is a 30 item measure designed to assess adolescent communication with others about a variety of sexual topics and concerns. The sexual topics and concerns presented in the SSDS include the following topics: the meaning of sex in intimate and loving relationships, birth control, sexual responsibility, negative feelings about sex, and positive feelings about sex. The subjects in the present study were in instructed to report the frequency of communications about sexual topics with their mother, fattier, best male friend, and best female friend using a 5-point Likert scale. Sexual disclosure scores to parents and friends were obtained by summing all responses to mother‑father and best male‑female friend targets. Scores were computed in such a manner that higher scores corresponded to greater sexual disclosure.

 

TABLE 2

Descriptive Statistics and Cronbach's Alpha Coefficient for Predictor and Criterion Variables Employed in the Regression Analyses


 

 

Mean

SD

Range

Cronbach Alpha


Predictor Variables

 

 

 

 

 

Attitude Towards Contraception

72.4

7.3

48‑94

.70

 

Enmeshment Seeking

28.8

5.8

14‑49

.71

 

Family Adaptability

24.9

6.5

10‑44

.73

 

Openness of Parent‑Adolescent
Communication

63.4

14.4

21‑98

.89

 

Self‑Esteem

67.6

5.6

47‑80

.73

 

Self‑Centeredness

29.9

5.4

13‑46

.75

 

Dependency Denial

27.2

7.0

15‑53

.76

 

Nurturance Seeking

20.9

4.0

7 ‑33

.73

Criterion Variables

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual Disclosure to Parents

81.5

22.6

60‑160

.96

 

Sexual Disclosure to Friends

131.5

47.8

60‑271

.98


 

Quality of Family  Functioning.  The quality of family functioning was assessed through tile use of two measures: tile Family Adaptability and Cohesion Scale III (FACES; Olson, Portner, & Lavee, 1985), and the Parent‑Adolescent Communication Scale (PAC; Barnes & Olson, 1982). Tile FACES was used to assess adolescent perceptions of their family's flexibility in dealing with change (adaptability). The FACES employs a 5‑point Likert format, with higher scores reflecting greater adaptability. The PAC was included in the present investigation in order to assess tile degree of' openness in parent‑adolescent communication. The psychometric properties of these family measures are well established and are presented in Olson, McCubbin, Barnes, Larsen, Muxen, and Wilson (1995).

 

Psychosocial and Cognitive Characteristics.  Adolescent psychosocial and cognitive maturity was assessed with a variety of instruments. The Hare Self‑Esteem Scale (HSES; Shoemaker, 1990) was used to provide a measure of self‑esteem (luring adolescence. The HSES consists of 30 items scores on a 4‑point Likert response format, such that higher scores reflect higher self‑esteem. A second measure, tile Separation‑Individuation Test of Adolescence (SITA; Levine, Green, & Millon, 1996) was used to provide information about the psychological and emotional maturity of tile adolescent's interpersonal relationships. Four subscale scores were employed from the SITA, which consists of 67 items answered on a 6‑point Likert format.  The first three subscales described underlie healthy separation, while the last subscale is associated with nonadaptive separation.

 

The Self‑Centeredness subscale reveals the extent to which an individual is able to retain a strong sense of self in relationships with others. The Enmeshment Seeking subscale reflects the extent to which the individual has developed emotionally balanced relationships with important others. The Nurturance Seeking subscale score reflects the extent to which the individuals relationship with others is characterized by feelings of' oneness that are overwhelming to the self. The Dependency Denial subscale detects individuals who respond to close interpersonal relationships by defensively denying or rejecting feelings of friendship or love for another.

 

Finally, a modified version of the Attitude Towards Contraceptives Scale (ATCS; Brown, 1994) was employed in tile present study in order to assess attitudes towards a variety of sexual topics, ranging from sexual abstinence to specific contraceptive methods. The scale was modified by adding items to assess attitudes towards sexual abstinence. This modification was intended to broaden the scope of the sexual attitudes assessed. The final version of the ATCS consisted of 25 items employing a 5‑point Likert scale, with a high score reflecting greater sexual responsibility.

 

RESULTS

 

The results of this investigation are presented in two sections. The first section describes gender‑related differences in adolescent sexual self‑disclosure to mothers, fathers, and best male and female friends. One way analyses of variance with unequal cell frequencies were conducted to identify significant mean differences between male and female disclosures to these targets. The second section presents the results relating family and personal antecedents to adolescent sexual disclosure to parents and friends. Regression models were employed to estimate the additive effects of familial and individual developmental characteristics on sexual disclosure to parents and friends.

 

Sexual Self‑Disclosure to Parents and Friends

 

            As anticipated, adolescents disclosed significantly more to friends (M = 132.06) than to parents (M = 82.49) about sexual concerns and topics (t(167) =2.75, p < .01).  An examination of sexual disclosure to parents by adolescent gender revealed no significant differences (RI, 168) = .19, p = .67). In addition, an inspection of sexual disclosure to friends by adolescent gender revealed no significant differences (F(1, 168) = .45, p = .50). Although no gender related differences in sexual self-disclosure to parents or friends emerged, it is possible that adolescent gender was associated with distinct patterns of sexual disclosure to mother, father, best male friend, and best female friend.

 

            Further inspection revealed a significant same‑sex preference for adolescent sexual disclosure to mother and father. Specifically, adolescent females disclosed significantly more to mothers (M = 47. 11) than did males (M = 41.38), (F(1, 168) = 4,92,‑p < .03). Conversely, adolescent males disclosed significantly more to fathers (X = 40.03) than did females (X = 36.06), (F(1, 168) = 4.19, p < .05). In brief there was a clear tendency for adolescents to engage in sexual disclosure with the same‑sex parent.

 

The tendency for adolescents to disclose to same‑sex friends was less pro­nounced, especially among female subjects. The results revealed that males dis­closed significantly more to a best male friend (M = 72.73) than did females (M = 60.71), (F(1, 168) = 7.91, p < .01).  However, adolescent males (M = 62.44) and females (M = 69.41) did not differ significantly in sexual disclosures to a best female friend (F(1, 168) = 2.76, p = . 10). Thus, heightened adolescent sexual disclosure to a same‑sex friend appeared to occur only among males.

 

Familial and Individual Developmental Antecedents

 

A second issue examined in the present study concerned the familial and individual developmental antecedents of adolescents' sexual disclosures. In particular, what are the familial and individual developmental characteristics that are associated with sexual self‑disclosure to parents and friends'? In order to address this question, separate regression analyses were conducted on sexual self‑disclosure to parents and friends with measures of family functioning and individual characteristics serving as predictor (it should be noted that model(s) were estimated assuming simultaneity of effect between the endogenous variables. However, empirical results indicated that this assumption was unfounded.).

 

Table 2 provides descriptive information about all of the predictor variables as well as the two criterion variables. Gender was included in the regression equations as a dummy variable in order to examine the disaggregated effects of gender on sexual disclosure. Diagnostic procedures (cf. Belsley, Kuh, & Welsh, 1980; Miller & Farmer, 1988) indicate collinearity does not exist within the X'X matrix and plots of the residuals of the regression equations, assessed by the methods described by Bibby (1977), give no indication of violations of the assumptions of regression analysis that would influence the results.

 

The results of these analyses are presented in Table 3.  With few exceptions, the obtained pattern of findings supports our earlier predictions about adolescent sexual disclosure to parents and friends. When adjusted for the inclusion of ten independent variables, the regression models account for 19 percent of the variance in the adolescent's sexual disclosure to parents, and 21 percent of the variance in the adolescent's sexual disclosure to friends. Inspection of Table 3 reveals that the unadjusted amount of variance accounted for by each model is also statistically significant, .24 and .25, respectively.

 

TABLE 3

Original Metric and Standardized [b] Regression Coefficients between Sexual Self‑Disclosure and Individual and Familial Variables


 

Sexual Disclosure

Sexual Disclosure

 

to Parents

to Friends

 

Metric

Standardized

Metric

Standardized


Attitude Towards Contraception

‑.43

.14*

‑1.46

‑.22­**

Gender

‑8.32

.18**

4.82

.05

Enmeshment Seeking

.38

.09

2.31

.28**

Family Adaptability

.69

.20**

.32

.05

Openness of  
  
Parent‑Adolescent
   Communication

.39

.25**

.34

.10

Self‑Esteem

‑.58

.14*

‑.57

‑.07

Self‑Centeredness

.72

.17*

1.19

.13

Dependency Denial

.71

.23**

.03

.005

Nurturance Seeking

‑.27

‑.05

‑3.61

‑.31­**

Age

‑.54

‑.02

.71

.01

 

 

 

 

 

R2

.24***

.25***

Adjusted R2

.19***

.21***


* = p < .05.  ** = p < .01; *** = p < .0001.

 

            When considering the adolescent sexual disclosure to parents equation, open­ness of communication had the strongest influence in terms of the relative impact (b = .25). Dependency denial, family adaptability, gender, self‑esteem, self­ centeredness, and attitude toward contraception were also significantly related to sexual self‑disclosure to parents. Enmeshment and nurturance seeking were not significantly related to sexual self‑disclosure to parents.

 

In the case of the equation examining sexual disclosure to friends, the nurturance seeking and enmeshment variable emerged as significant predictors. The extent to which the adolescent expressed a responsible attitude toward their emerging sexuality was also a significant predictor. However, nurturance seeking was the strongest predictor variable in terms of relative magnitude (b = ‑.31). The two variables assessing the quality of family functioning (family adaptability and the openness of parent‑adolescent communication) and the remaining individual psychosocial variables were not significantly associated with adolescent sexual self-disclosure to friends.

 

When the two sets of estimates are compared, a differential pattern of relationship is apparent. Specifically, the only variable that was significantly related to both endogenous variables was attitude toward contraception (being negative in both cases). As expected, the familial variables were strongly related to sexual disclosure with parents but were not related to sexual disclosure with friends. The differential role of gender in the two equations is also germane to the current discussion. The coefficient for gender in the regression equation examining sexual disclosure to parents was negative and statistically significant, while in the case of disclosure to friends the coefficient was positive and not statistically significant. Thus, it appears that gender was most meaningful in the explanation of sexual disclosure to parents rather than friends. Female adolescents disclosed significantly more to parents than did males. The age of the adolescent was unrelated to sexual self‑disclosure to either parents or friends.

 

In summary, the empirical findings indicated that adolescent sexual self-disclosure to parents was a function of both individual and familial characteristics. Sexual disclosure to parents was highest when (a) adolescents perceived a prior history of open communication with parents, (b) adolescents perceived the family as being adaptive to change, (c) self‑esteem was low, (d) the adolescent was able to retain a strong sense of self in relationships, (e) the adolescent was able to accept the need for affection in relationships, (f) the adolescent was female, and (g) the adolescent had a poorly developed attitude towards their emerging sexuality. Thus, familial and individual developmental characteristics were associated with adolescent sexual disclosure to parents as predicted.

 

Sexual disclosure to friends was most strongly influenced by individual psychosocial characteristics, with the quality of family functioning being of little consequence. Sexual disclosure to friends was highest when (a) the adolescent expressed the ability to establish appropriately enmeshed relationships with others. (b) the adolescent reported a need to receive nurturance from others, and (c) the adolescent had a poorly developed attitude towards their emerging sexuality. Thus, adolescent sexual self‑disclosure to friends was discovered to be largely associated with individual developmental characteristics rather than patterns of family functioning.'

 

DISCUSSION

 

Collectively, the results of the present investigation have provided additional insight into the origins of adolescent sexual disclosure to parents and friends. Sexual disclosure to parents was found to be most strongly affected by adolescent perceptions of the quality of family functioning (Fox, 1981, 1983). Sexual disclosure to friends was found to be related most strongly to the adolescent’s ability to form emotionally interdependent relations with others. In addition, the extent to which the adolescent had formed attitudes towards their emerging sexuality was found to affect sexual disclosure to both parents and friends.

 

When the adolescent's sexual attitudes were firmly entrenched, they engaged in little sexual disclosure to parents and friends. However, when attitudes were less developed, adolescents were likely to engage in greater sexual disclosure to both parents and friends. Thus, communication about sexual concerns appeared to be greatest as the adolescent attempted to form and solidify their attitudes towards their emerging sexuality. Once these sexual attitudes were formed, the adolescent's sexual communication with parents and best friends declined.

 

The results of this study also highlight the involvement of parents and friends in the larger process of sexual socialization during adolescence. Gender‑related differences in patterns of sexual self‑disclosure to mothers and fathers indicated that sexual socialization occurred along same‑sex lines in the family context. This finding was consistent with the literature on the role of sexual communication on similarities in parent‑ adolescent sexual attitudes (Fisher, 1986, 1987; Hepburn, 1983). The same‑sex pattern of sexual disclosure in the family was not observed, however, in the context of friendships. While males in the present study reported more sexual disclosure to a best male friend, male and female adolescents did not differ in their reported sexual disclosures to a female best friend.

 

The adolescent's discussion of sexual concerns with parents and friends was also found to be associated with the quality of both family functioning and individual developmental characteristics. Adolescent sexual self‑disclosure to parents was most strongly associated with measures of family functioning and measures of the quality of the separation‑individuation process. The extent to which adolescents perceived their parents as engaging in open communication was most strongly related to sexual disclosure. Sexual disclosure was also enhanced in family contexts that adolescents perceived as being adaptive to change. Thus, adolescents were most likely to communicate with parents about sexual concerns when they perceived the family context to be open and flexible.

 

In addition to familial characteristics, the adolescent's ability to negotiate the separation‑Individuation process with parents affected their sexual disclosures to parents. The ability to maintain a sense of self in relationships (self‑centeredness) enhanced adolescent sexual self‑disclosure to parents. Dependency denial, which involves the rejection of the affective qualities of relationships, was associated with lowered sexual disclosure to parents. Thus, the adolescent's ability to successfully individuate from the family of origin influenced the extent to which they were open and revealing about sexual aspects of themselves to their parents.

 

Other individual characteristics were also associated with disclosure to parents. Low self‑esteem resulted in greater communication with parents about sexual concerns These results were consistent with Sparks' (1976) finding that self‑esteem was related to general self‑disclosure. When adolescents lack confidence in the self they may feel more comfortable discussing their sexual concerns with parents than with friends.

 

Adolescent gender also was associated with sexual disclosure to parents. The gender finding that female adolescents engaged in greater sexual disclosure to parents than male adolescents was consistent with the literature on sexual socialization in the family (Fox, 1990, 1991). Interestingly, while adolescent gender was unrelated to sexual disclosure with parents in the univariate case, gender was predictive of sexual self‑disclosure to parents in the multivariate case. When the other variables included in the model were controlled, as they were in the multivariate case, gender emerged as a useful predictor of sexual self‑disclosure to parents. Thus, multivariate strategies permit a more sensitive description of gender effects than do univariate approaches.

 

Sexual self‑disclosure to friends was most strongly associated with the extent to which adolescents had successfully accomplished the separation‑ individuation process. Adolescents who reported low nurturance seeking and high emotional enmeshment in relationships were more likely to sexually disclose to their friends. Thus, the ability of the adolescent to emotionally separate and individuate from the family of origin has implications for the quality of peer relations. Adolescents appeared to branch out towards friends for emotional support as emotional distance from family members was established during the individuation process. At this time in their lives, friendships begin to assume an important role in the sexual socialization of adolescents.

 

One additional issue warrants attention in the present study. The present research findings indicated that familial and individual developmental factors were associated with patterns of sexual disclosure among adolescents. However, the exact nature of this pattern remains unclear since reciprocal influences have not been examined.  Does the quality of family and individual functioning promote sexual disclosure to parents and peers, or does sexual disclosure to parents and peers enhance the quality of family and individual functioning? Future research may eventually clarify the direction of these relationships.

 

In addition, the sample possessed characteristics which cautions against gross generalizations to all adolescents. As stated previously, the adolescents participating in this study belonged to families which did not conform very closely to population demographics within the state. For example, the sexual socialization of adolescents from families in which the parents have had less education may be accomplished using different communication styles. Empirical support for such speculation was provided by Jacob (1974), who found significant differences in patterns of interaction among white‑and blue‑collar families. Thus, replication of these findings with adolescents from families with differing socioeconomic characteristics would be a valuable addition to the literature on the socialization of adolescent sexuality.

 

In summary, the results of this study shed some light on the sexual socialization of adolescents by parents and friends. Sexual self‑disclosure in the family context was positively influenced by adolescent perceptions of the quality of family functioning, the extent to which the adolescent had individuated from the family of origin, and negatively associated with adolescent self‑esteem. Sexual self‑disclosure to friends was positively influenced by the adolescents’ ability to form enmeshed interpersonal relationships which involved low levels of nurturance seeking. The extent to which the adolescents' possessed responsible attitudes towards their emerging sexuality was positively related to sexual disclosure to both parents and friends. The socialization of adolescents may involve sexual disclosures with parents and friends through which the adolescent adopts responsible sexual attitudes.

 


 

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William E. Snell, Jr., Ph.D.
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