Predicting unprotected sex among adolescents: Parental knowledge and callous-unemotional traits

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Risky sexual behavior, including engagement in sexual intercourse without a condom, is common among adolescents and can result in many negative consequences. The aim of the present study was to conduct a longitudinal investigation of predictors of adolescents’ likelihood of engaging in sex without a condom. Past research has established that parental knowledge, or the extent to which parents know information about their children’s peers, whereabouts, and activities, robustly predicts youth’s engagement in risky sexual behavior. However, among youth with elevated levels of callous-unemotional (CU) traits (e.g., the callous use of others, absence of empathy, lack of guilt, and constricted emotions), parenting practices and parent-focused interventions are typically less potent as predictors of subsequent behavior. Across three different logistic regression models which each conceptualized “parental knowledge” in a different way (though adolescent-report, parent-report, and through the discrepancy across reporters), this study examined parental knowledge, CU traits, and the interaction between these variables as predictors of adolescents’ subsequent engagement in sex without a condom. It was hypothesized that CU traits would moderate the relation between parental knowledge and engagement in sex without a condom, such that parental knowledge would be protective against engaging in unprotected sex only for those adolescents with lower levels of CU traits. Results indicated that, regardless of level of CU traits, adolescents who perceived their parents to possess greater knowledge were less likely to engage in unprotected sex. A higher parent report of parental knowledge was also related to decreased likelihood of engaging in unprotected sex, but, counter to the study’s hypothesis, parent-reported parental knowledge was only significant for adolescents with the highest levels of CU traits. This finding remained significant after controlling for adolescents’ engagement in unprotected sex in the year prior. The discrepancy between parent- and adolescent- reports of parental knowledge and the interaction between discrepancies and CU traits were not significant predictors of adolescents’ subsequent engagement in sex without a condom. Results from this study highlight the importance of considering both parent and adolescent perceptions of parental knowledge and have important implications for future prevention and intervention efforts.