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Older sisters can play a role in healthy conversations about teenage relationships

University of Missouri study finds that sisters are more comfortable and honest in conversations about dating and sex

September 26th, 2018

Story Contact: Sheena Rice, 573-882-8353,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Parents of teenage daughters might consider leaving the room to let their daughters talk about dating and sex.

New research from the University of Missouri indicates older sisters can play a role in shaping healthy conversations about romantic relationships and sexuality. Sarah Killoren, associate professor of human development and family science in the College of Human Environmental Sciences and an expert on family relationships, found that that sisters can promote adolescent girls’ healthy romantic relationships based on their experiences — especially older sisters’ experiences—through one-on-one conversations. Her findings suggest that sisters might be more comfortable and honest in conversations about sex and dating than they are with parents or other adults and even friends.

“If parents want their daughters to have healthy relationships, they should encourage their daughters to talk to one another about sex and dating,” Killoren said. “Making certain topics taboo could be a disservice to young women as they navigate adolescence and relationships.”

Killoren and her colleagues examined the content of more than 60 pairs of sisters’ conversations to identify messages about dating. The average age for the older sisters was 19, while younger sisters were around 14 years old.

“Older sisters used their experiences and lessons learned from dating to try to help their younger sisters make good choices about dating partners and sexual relationships,” Killoren said. “In many cases, they focused on the negative aspects as a way to protect their sisters, talking about risks of unprotected sex and abusive relationships.”

During sisters’ conversations about dating and sexuality, sisters talked with one another about the progression of relationships, partners, sex and the importance of self-care. Many of the messages were consistent with societal views on adolescent sexuality — to avoid having sex until in an older, committed relationship and the negative consequences resulting from having sex as a teenager. The researchers also found that sisters can be good messengers on the importance of not ignoring other significant relationships while dating.

“Sister relationships are peer-like, but they also are involuntary, meaning that sisters don’t get to choose one another the same way they can choose their friends.” Killoren said. “Sisters can be honest with one another in a way that they can’t be with their friends. For example, an older sister can voice her disapproval about a younger sister’s boyfriend without necessarily severing the relationship with her sister. If a friend shared such concern, the younger sister could terminate the friendship as a result.”

“Content and correlates of sisters’ messages about dating and sexuality,” was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Co-authors from MU were Nicole Campione-Barr, Sonia Giron and Gabrielle Kline. Cara Streit with the University of New Mexico and Lise Youngblade with Colorado State University also contributed to the study. Research was financially supported by the MU Research Council, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.