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Risky Parents, Risky Teens

Risky Parents, Risky Teens
WebMD Health News

Aug. 30, 2002 -- Parents who smoke, drink, and ignore their own health are a bad example for their kids -- one that's leading to early, unsafe sex.

A nationwide study of some 19,000 adolescents -- in grades 7 through 12 -- finds that parents are indeed their kids' role models, whether they like it or not.

"Parents' behavior creates a whole atmosphere of risk, a sense that living on the edge is OK," says lead author Esther Wilder, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Lehman College in the Bronx in New York.

"Kids grow up thinking, 'If they don't care, why should I?'" she tells WebMD.

Wilder's report appears in the September issue of the The Milbank Quarterly.

Among her findings: Most adolescents used contraception the first time they had intercourse. But one-third did not. "That's real cause for concern," she says.

Also, parents who smoked -- more than drinking or any other risky behavior -- were more likely to have kids who were also engaged in risky behaviors.

"Adolescents whose parents smoked were 50% more likely to have had sex -- and to have it at very early ages," says Wilder. "This was regardless of whether the family was affluent or received welfare, parents' level of education, religion, whether they were in stepfamilies or single-parent families."

"Risk gets reproduced across generations," she tells WebMD. "It may take different forms, but we found a strong intergenerational pattern of risk."

Smoking sets a "behavioral tone" in the family, one creates the same pattern of behavior in the child, says Wilder. "It's like a risky syndrome that gets passed from one generation to next."

Parents need this kind of wake-up call, says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"Families have been hoping the schools could do it, that if they could find the right curriculum -- or if we could change what Hollywood does or doesn't do, rate the movies just right -- all kids' behavior problems would go away," Brown tells WebMD.

She talks with lots of parents. "Parents have really felt they have lost kids to the power of peer influence and media influence," says Brown. "We've even heard parents say, 'once they're 12 or 13, we have no role in their lives. It doesn't matter what we do, we don't see them.'"

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