Cultural Norms When It Comes to “The Talk”

Saras Chung

Research shows that parent-adolescent communication about sex can protect against risky sexual behaviors in teens. So what happens to those who, by cultural nature, do not receive such warnings?

Know a teen of Latino or Asian immigrant parents? Did you know that you might be the ONLY person who talks to them about sexual development? It’s true. As a child of Korean immigrants myself, it was culturally painful and taboo to discuss the already sensitive topic of sex out loud, let alone with my parents. Even as a 30-year old woman with two kids of my own, the thought of having this conversation with my parents still makes me cringe.

Blame the parents? Partly, but really, it’s cultural. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that Latina and Asian mothers were less likely to talk to their children about sex than other ethnicities. Although family relationships are vitally important to Asian Americans, ironically, dialogues on sensitive topics such as sexual feelings, intercourse, pregnancy, HIV, and drugs are rare in families. Instead, these types of messages may be conveyed in indirect, implicit, and nonverbal ways easily understood by their Asian American children. Of course, this research is not the case for every single Asian American or Latino you work with, as families may vary on levels of acculturation, but it is something to keep in mind as you work with young teens of this ethnic background.

My own enlightenment came from my mother in a passing comment…so passing that if I blinked my eyes, I might have missed it: “Don’t become pregnant… Stay away from boys.” As a young adolescent, this is about as far as the conversation went. For all logical purposes, I could have believed that just by being around a boy could get me pregnant. “Lucky” for me, the lack of pertinent education at home was fully supplemented by whispers amongst school friends and my seventh grade health class (think graphic slide shows of sexually transmitted infections given by the school nurse). However, even amongst the formalized education, none held as much weight as my own mother’s cautionary words to stay baby-free until marriage…“or else.”

What can be done? How do we work within the cultural norms of ethnically diverse frameworks? The positive side of this story is that research finds that compared to whites, Asian American youth were more concerned about their parents’ opinions regarding dating and relationships. If you happen to be working with large numbers of immigrant populations, why work against the system? Though it is imperative to provide formal sex education in our schools and communities, it is even more important to find ways to sensitively encourage and support all parents, especially those with ethnic minority backgrounds, to have “the talk” with their teen.

Ways to encourage dialogue with parents and teens of ethnically diverse backgrounds:

  1. Utilize existing frameworks. Meet parents where they are at. Champion individuals who can reach parents on a grassroots level to discuss the importance of such conversations. If this means finding advocates at local churches, community centers, or associations, do so. Many ethnic minorities have local newspapers that are dedicated to covering information to their community.
  2. Engage schools to help you spread the importance of such messages. Bring fliers in the appropriate language for schools to disseminate to students.
  3. Work with local church youth workers to work with parents on the importance of communication.

Understand that culturally, messages to parents must respect the sensitivity to the topic. Just because you might be comfortable discussing the topic of intercourse and protection does not mean that parents are as well. Enabling parents to feel prepared and supported is your best tool.

-Saras Chung, MSW is a Research and Operations Manager at Wyman.

Meneses, LM, et. al. Racial/ethnic Differences in Mother-daughter Communication About Sex. J Adolesc Health 2006; 39:128-131.
Wen-Chu Chen, E., Yoo, GJ. Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today. Volume 1. Edith Wen-Chu Chen and Grace J. Yoo 2010. Santa Barbara, CA.

Photo by Kristie Cromie

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