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Teenage Sex Part Two
Irish Examiner 31/08/2005

by Ailin Quinlan

In the second part of our four-part series on teenagers and sex Ailin Quinlan hears how parents have a pivotal role in sex education and learns how to broach the sensitive subject.

Teenagers and their sexual behaviour in Ireland: Part Two
Ask the experts - they'll all say the same thing: good education begins at home. Communication with parents about sex can help delay the age of first sexual intercourse - and increase the use of contraception among young people, according to the research. Young people who discuss sex with their parents are, on average twice as likely to use contraception at first penetrative sex. Boys who have discussed contraception with their parents feel more comfortable about carrying condoms. Positive parental attitudes increase the likelihood of condom use threefold. Girls who talk with their parents about contraception are twice as likely to buy and carry condoms.

It's all there - and yet, the same research will show that many young people don't discuss sex with their parents. Why? Partly, says Teresa McElhenny, Senior Health Promotion Officer with the Health Service Executive Southern Area, because parents feel inadequate about it.

"Many people do not perceive a young person as a sexual being. Parents are hesitant, they feel they are not equipped, that they may not have the information to give or that they may not be able to pitch in a way young people will accept," she explains. Fathers can be more reluctant than mothers.

Therefore, while a daughter may at least receive some informal sexual information from her mother, a son may, in effect, fall between two stools because Mums feel it is inappropriate for her to talk to her son - and Dad shies away from it.

For those parents who are willing, yet ambivalent about the right time to broach the subject, fearing it will put an end to "innocence" , Carmel Wynne, author of Sex & Young People: The knowledge to Guide the Teenager in Your Life puts it simply: "Parents need to discriminate between ignorance, which is absence for information and innocence which is an absence of guilt." It's important, she says, to start talking to children early and get the message across that they should expect to be properly treated by others.
"Use opportunities such as a walk down to the shop." Wynne advises pointing out ordinary day-to-day sights to get the message across.

A simple example would be to point out the immaturity of teenage boys using foul or disrespectful language in front of girls. Young people should be taught early on to expect to be treated well by others, she says. "Parents have a huge role to play in good sex education," says Dr Sheila Jones, Medical Director of the Irish Family Planning Association.

"Children who grow up in homes where sex education is discussed do better. It is important that a child has a good grounding in sexual matters and has good values when it comes to relationships." The problem is, she says, it's not happening enough. "I see a lot of young women and ask "can you talk to your Mum about this" and they say "no". It's important to talk to somebody. People need to realise young people are sexually active. They need to be given the means to protect themselves against STIs and pregnancy, and be given the confidence to say "no" if it is not right for them and to avoid being pressurised into it.

As a society we need to look at the messages we're giving out, says Jones. It's crucial to get the message across that if a young person considers themselves old enough to have sex that they also realise they must be old enough to take the responsibility that goes with it - by protecting themselves and their partner. Be there for your children - they need it say the experts.

Young girls in particular often feel isolated and unsure of how to react. Uncertain whether to risk talking to their parents, and pressurised by their peer group and/or boyfriend they teeter uncertainly through difficult territory where a refusal to conform to a particular form of behaviour can attract verbal abuse. Rita O Reilly of Parentline says teenage girls can face being "frigid" if they do not "meet" or kiss.

Parents can counter this sort of peer pressure, she says. Simply point out that name-callers are often covering up their own insecurity and low self-esteem by slagging kids who are confident enough to say no to something that makes them uncomfortable. " You have to talk to them about these things and give them tips for saying no - the vast majority of teenagers do not want to have oral sex and do not want to participate in bushing or other sexual acts - it is uncomfortable and frightening. However there is tremendous peer pressure. So give them the little tips and tell them it is ok to say no, " she says.

Above all: "Work on their confidence, build them up for what's out there." Tips for parents on sex education Everyday events can provide an easy opening to the topic of sexuality - for example, a programme on TV. Always be honest and open with your child.

Sex education is not just about biology - it is also about relationships, emotions and feelings. Don't try to hide shock or embarrassment. Be open about your feelings. Tell them you are always happy to answer their questions. Ask questions as much as you are asked. Listening is a key part of communication. This way you can find out what your child knows. Have books or leaflets for your child to read or for your to look at together. Start talking early - give them information about material they may see on TV. Answer questions simply and relevantly.

Try to give them awareness about sexuality and its implications before sexual activity begins. Don't feel you have to know everything about STIs, contraception, etc. Keep the lines of communication open. If you are embarrassed about discussing something, admit it. Know what is being taught in sex education classes so that you can follow it up yourself and be prepared for the questions that may arise from it. Accept that you need to talk to them about life and sex and give them tips for saying no to activities with which they are not comfortable. Explain how boys and girls see sex differently.

Think about the message you want to give - i.e. if you are old enough to have sex you are old enough to take on the responsibility that goes with it to use contraception and protect yourself and your partner. Warn them about the hype - just before they are being told everyone is doing it does not mean everyone is. Remember the question your child asks may not always be the one that is really on their mind. Sometimes they will test the water with a similar or related question. If you don't know an answer find out and tell your child at a future date.

What the research says about sex education

Parental control and supervision has been linked to lower levels of adolescent problem behaviour.

Parents who do not participate in their children's sexual education contributed to their child's unwillingness to negotiate safer sex. Where there is a strained or discontinued relationship with parents there tends to be greater sexual activity, greater non-use of contraception and higher levels of unplanned pregnancies.

Many school students do not discuss sex with their parents. Parents tend to send different signals about sexual behaviour to their daughters and sons. Daughters were more likely to receive messages about abstinence and chastity, while sons tended to be perceived as sexual predators, who needed to protect themselves against the consequences of sexual activity.

Communication about sex with parents tends to take the form of regulare and consistent warnings on the adverse effects of sex. A dominant pattern was for female participants to receive direct messages from parents that they should not be having sex. Some female participants revealed that strong parental messages of disapproval had the effect of closing down dialogue between parent and adoescent.

Research also suggests that parents make two (incorrect) assumptions in relation to their daughters and sex. Firstly, they presuppose that their daughters are not going to be sexually active, and secondly theyassume that their daughters are epuipped with adequate knowlege about sex. A number of participants believed that parents presumed that young people were recieving sex education at school, which might explain the fact that most did not themselves educate their children about sex.

A Scottish questionnaire about school-based sex education explored parents' perceptions of their responsibility to discussing sexual issues with their child, many confessed they had not done so.

The home is a first influence of developing sexuality. Parenting styles can affect the nature of communication, and subsequently the sexual attitudes of children. Parents who adopt a more realistic or humanistic parenting style rather than a moralistic one are more likely to discuss issues - specifically sexual matters.

An open and positive environment in which to discuss sexuality is crucial. The quality of the parent/child relationship has been identified as a crucial component in lower rates of teenage pregnancies.

Boys who have discussed contraception with their parents feel more comfortable about carrying condoms and that positive attitudes increaseed the likelihood of condom use threefold. Girls who had talked with their parents about contraception were twice as likely to buy and carry condoms.

Its Time To Be Parents Again

Teenagers need boundaries - and surprise, surprise, sometimes they even like being told "no". It's time, says Rita O'Reilly, for parents to start being parents again. "They're often just testing you," said the Parentline manager. "Not only do they need boundaries, they want them too. I feel the pendulum has swung too far. Many parents are too lenient."

The 40-something parents who have teenagers today may be attemting to compensate for the highly-disciplined society in which they grew up - but we may have gone too far.

"Now we need to come back into the middle. Parents need to have the confidence to do that," she says.

Set boundaries: Setting boundaries can demonstrate to a teenager that "their parents love them enough and care enough and care enough to lay down boundaries rather than just let them do what they like," says O'Reilly, who warns that Mums and Dads need to grasp the nettle and take back the role of parent.

Be a parent not a peer:
"Do it through love and not fear," she says but don't make the mistake of trying to be your teenagers best friend all time: "Remember you are a parent not a friend. You can have a good relationship but it is a different relationship to the one your teenager will have with their friends. I feel very strongly that childrean and teenagers want different relationships with their parents than they would have with their friends." If a parent tries too hard to be a 'pal' to a teenager and his or her friends, he or she can end up looking like a modern-day version of Father Trendy, says O'Reilly - and, she adds, it's "excrutiatingly embarrassing for teenagers."

Ask Questions: So be the parent and don't be afraid to ask where your children are going - and make sure you're being told the right story. " You don't want to be on their tail the whole time but what you can do is network with their friend's parents. Get to know their friends," and most importantly, while they are young enough and still willing, give them lifts to where they're going - and bring them home.

Allow appropriate freedom: Kids can have freedom within boundaries - but make sure the freedom you allow them is appropriate - "it might be appropriate to let a 16 year old into town in the afternoon but not at night," she points out.

Make Rules: Don't be afraid to lay down the rules, she says - no going to free house parties, no going to the boyfriend's house after school etc...

Be careful about clothes:
"Don't sexualise them too early," says O'Reilly. Try to avoid inappropriate styles and t-shirt slogans. "It's parents who buy these clothes. The kids can't buy them, the kids have the pester power - you have to resist it. It is never too late to say no and be consistent about it, explain that you do not think it is appropriate wear and that it would look nice on them when they are older."