Study: Emotion-regulation training for adolescents delays sexual activity

June 28, 2018

A Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center study found that a health intervention program focused on emotion-regulation skills reduced sexual risk behaviors among young adolescents with suspected mental health symptoms. 

The findings of the study led by Christopher D. Houck, Ph.D., are presented in “Sexual Risk Outcomes of an Emotion Regulation Intervention for At-Risk Early Adolescents,” published recently in Pediatrics, the medical journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Houck has been a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital since 2005 and is an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior (research) and associate professor of pediatrics (research) at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Houck and his team enrolled 420 seventh-graders to participate in either a six-week program focused on emotion regulation or a time- and attention-matched program that concentrated on making healthy decisions about various topics and addressed sexual health, but not emotion regulation.

The adolescents completed a computer survey regarding their sexual behavior at six-month intervals for two and a half years.

“The program was really focused on helping adolescents to identify why feelings are important and how feelings influence our decision-making,” Houck said. “We’re not suggesting that regulation is getting rid of feelings, it’s really being able to manage those feelings” so that they aren’t driving decisions about sexual activity.

Houck and his colleagues found that adolescents who received emotion-regulation training showed a delay in transitioning to vaginal sex over the course of the study period compared to those in the comparison group. They also reported fewer instances of sex without condom use during the follow-up period. Among those who were sexually active, those in the emotion-regulation cohort reported fewer instances of vaginal or anal sex.

The study suggests that incorporating emotion-regulation training into health education may have important health implications for early adolescents.

Houck has been principal or co-investigator of many research studies, including several focusing on affect management for early adolescents and the development and evaluation of risk prevention interventions for at-risk early adolescents.