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date: 19 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Parents can be the target of health and risk messages about their children and can be a channel by which children hear health messages. This dual role can make parents powerful agents for change in children’s health. Parents receive health messages from a variety of sources including health care providers, schools, the media, the government, and family. Parents tend to be a more frequent target for health messages when their children are infants or young. They receive many messages related to keeping their children safe. Most of these messages are not developed as part of a rigorous data-driven and theory-based intervention and often lack sophisticated message development and design. Furthermore, instead of segmenting parents and tailoring messages, parents are frequently treated as a monolith, with no diversity related to behavior or communication.

As children age, parents can become the channel by which children can hear a health message. Parents of school-age children and adolescents are continually communicating messages to their children and are often targeted to communicate messages related to health or risk behaviors. Intentional efforts to encourage parents to talk to their children are often related to risk behaviors among older children. Specifically, parents are asked to convey messages about sexual health, alcohol and drug use, and driving. Evidence points to parent–child communication in general and communication about specific risk behaviors as protective for children. Research has also suggested that adolescents want to hear health messages from their parents. Parents are a natural choice to communicate about health and risk throughout childhood and adolescence due to the parent–child relationship and the influence parents can have over children. However, this special relationship does not automatically translate into parents having good communication skills. Messages designed to encourage parents to communicate with their children about a health topic have often been developed with the assumption that parents know what to communicate and how to effectively communicate with their children. Deficits in communication skills among parents have been recognized by some campaign developers, and an emphasis on developing those skills has been a significant part of some messages targeting parents. Health communication campaigns have been developed to inform parents about when and how to talk to their children about health issues such as alcohol, drugs, and sex. Unfortunately, not all parent–child communication is positive or effective and this can have potential unintended consequences. Treating parents as an audience in a more nuanced manner, with greater emphasis on evidence-based message development, could result in more effective messages and better health outcomes.

Keywords: health communication, parent–child communication, family communication, parenting styles, message development

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