Strong mother-daughter relationships provide many positive psychological benefits for teen girls. For African-American girls with mental health problems, this relationship may also serve to prevent risky sexual behavior that could lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “Relative to other ethnic groups, African-American girls tend to initiate sex earlier, report higher rates of sexual activity during adolescence, and they account for the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea,” said Erin Emerson of the Department of Psychiatry, Community Outreach Intervention Projects at the University of Illinois. “African-American girls in psychiatric care are at even greater risk because teens with mental health problems report more sexual risk-taking than do their untroubled peers.” Emerson recently led a study to identify what factors would influence sexual activity in this segment of the population. She said, “Guided by a social-personal framework, this study explored three mechanisms that may be associated with sexual behavior among African-American girls in psychiatric care: attachment to mothers, attachment to peers, and perceived peer norms.”
Emerson and her colleagues evaluated 262 African-American teen girls who were receiving outpatient care for mental health problems. Of all the participants, nearly one third had engaged in some form of sexual activity, half before the age of 13. Emerson found that one of the strongest influences on sexual behavior was the relationship between the girls and their mothers. “This study identified two patterns that can guide prevention programs for this at-risk population,” said Emerson. “First, both family (mother– daughter attachment) and peer (peer norms and peer attachment) factors were correlated with self-reported sexual behavior of African-American girls in psychiatric care, and second, mother– daughter attachment patterns helped explain the relationship of peer norms and girls’ risky sex.” She added, “Our results underscore the benefit of strengthening mother– daughter relationships, which may in turn help girls choose peers and romantic partners that engage in healthy, rather than health-compromising behaviors.”
Emerson, E., Donenberg, G. R., & Wilson, H. W. (2011, December 19). Health-Protective Effects of Attachment Among African American Girls in Psychiatric Care. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026352
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