New UMSN research could lower high-risk sexual behavior in adolescents

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The four-year $1.8-million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) will be used to help parents talk to their children about sexual behavior in ways that will reduce risks.

Cuídalos (“Take care of them”) is a web-based program designed to give parents skills that will help them increase and improve communication about sex with their children. University of Michigan School of Nursing Professor Antonia Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN and her co-investigator, Nelson Varas Diaz, PhD, University of Puerto Rico, will work with community-based agencies in Puerto Rico to recruit program participants and evaluate the program’s impact.

The parents will participate in a two-hour, web-based interactive program that includes problem-solving scenarios and basic sexual knowledge on topics including pregnancy, sexual transmitted diseases, and common myths about sex. Dr. Villarruel said, “One of the barriers for parents is not being able to talk to their kids. They feel like they don’t know enough. So we level the playing field. We give them the knowledge they want and need to have. Then we work on building skills for the parents.”

Parents will be able to use the program at home, in community-based agencies, libraries,  or wherever they choose. Dr. Villarruel pilot tested the program in Southwest Detroit to ensure that a lack of computer skills would not be a deterrent to participants. She said, “Our participants had never used a computer before and had less than a high school education, so we made it very simple for them to navigate. They liked the program, and we found that it increased general and sexual communication.”

The research in Puerto Rico will focus on the amount of sexual communication between the parents and their children, the comfort level of that communication, as well as the sexual behavior of the adolescents after the intervention. Puerto Rico was chosen because adolescents there engage in high-risk sexual behaviors at a younger age and because there are very few Spanish language resources available for parents in the area.  

Dr. Villarruel believes this research will be beneficial to parents globally. If the program is highly successful, she’d like to see it tailored for different cultures and made widely available. She said, “Parents need a resource; adolescents don’t come with a how-to kit. That’s universal.”