A new publication from the Flint Adolescent Study explores how family functioning throughout the adolescent years relates to sexual risk behaviors among teens.
HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) remain a major public health concern in the US. Adolescents are at increased risk for HIV/STI and Black adolescents are disproportionately affected. Previous studies have linked decreased family conflict and increased parental support with reduced sexual risk behaviors and STIs among Black youth, however research surrounding how changes in family functioning over time informs risk behaviors is more limited. Researchers from the University of Michigan Prevention Research Center formulated this study to help fill that gap in the literature.
The study focused on a sample of 850 predominantly (80%) Black adolescents from working class families in Flint, Mich. Researchers assessed their family functioning levels at baseline, and at one, two, and three years post-baseline. At the three-year mark, the youth were also asked about various sexual risk behaviors and STIs.
Results from the self-reported data revealed that adolescent members of families with consistently high levels of conflict or conflict that increased during the three-year study were more likely to report sexual risk behaviors than members of families with low or decreasing conflict. Similarly, high parental support had a protective effect while low support tended to increase risk.
Though these clear patterns emerged, there were also some nuances to the findings. For example, it appears that the impact of family conflict and support on sexual risk behavior actually varies by gender, showing a more significant effect on the behaviors of girls than boys.
Additionally, though the two extremes of the family conflict scale showed consistent patterns with risk behavior, families that were reported to have initially low parent support that increased over the three-year study were less predictive of sexual risk behaviors than families that had initially high parent support that increased over time.
Counterintuitive findings like this highlight the complexities of the influence of family dynamics on sexual risk behaviors as well as the need for future studies that may tease out these intricacies.