Good parenting by fathers protects against risky sexual behavior in daughters

June 24, 2011

High-quality parenting by fathers reduces the risk that their daughters will engage in risky sexual behavior as adolescents.

High-quality parenting by fathers reduces the risk that their daughters will engage in risky sexual behavior as adolescents.

In a genetically and environmentally controlled sibling study, University of Arizona researchers retrospectively evaluated the effect of family disruption or father absence and quality of fathering on the incidence of risky sexual behavior (ie, behavioral patterns that increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancy) in adolescent girls.

The study enrolled 101 pairs of full biological sisters who were at least 4 years apart in age and between 18 and 36 years old at the time of the study. Of the 101 pairs, 42 were from families with 2 biological parents who remained together throughout the sisters’ childhoods, and 59 were from biologically disrupted families in which the parents separated or divorced when the younger sister was less than 14 years of age and the sisters then lived primarily with their mother or in joint custody with their mother. The study sample was racially and ethnically diverse and similar to the US population.

Overall, 48.3% of sisters from biologically disrupted families compared with 33.3% of those from 2-biological-parent families reported that they had engaged in at least 1 risky sexual behavior between 14 and 17 years of age.

The results indicated that it is what fathers do, not how long they live with their daughters, that affects the likelihood that their daughters will engage in risky sexual behavior. Higher quality father-daughter relationships were found to protect against risky sexual behavior in daughters. Variation around the lower end of fathering quality had the greatest influence on risky sexual behavior. In contrast, greater exposure within families to family disruption or father absence, irrespective of quality of fathering, was not associated with increased risky sexual behavior in daughters.

In biologically disrupted families, the effect of quality of father-daughter relationships on risky sexual behavior was greatest when there was a large age difference between the sisters, maximizing differential exposure to fathers.

Ellis BJ, Schlomer GL, Tilley EH, Butler EA. Impact of fathers on risky sexual behavior in daughters: a genetically and environmentally controlled sibling study. Dev Psychopathol. In press.