Sex Part Two
Irish Examiner 31/08/2005
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
Teenagers and their sexual behaviour in Ireland:
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
"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
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"
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
What the research says about sex education
control and supervision has been linked to lower
levels of adolescent problem behaviour.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Time To Be Parents Again
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
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.
we need to come back into the middle. Parents need
to have the confidence to do that," she says.
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.
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."
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
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.
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...
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