Let's talk about sex . . . and teenagers

 

It is not about having one conversation with your teen but being in tune with certain stages, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

WE ARE the generation of open-minded parents. We like to consider ourselves able to talk to our children about anything. There is no question of leaving them to their own devices to learn about sex, as many of our parents did in their day. Or is there?

Research commissioned by the then Crisis Pregnancy Agency in 2009 concluded that parents often think they are better at communicating with their pre-teen and teenage children about relationships and sex than they actually are.

Although a minority of parents huffed and puffed with indignation when the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme was introduced in 1995, many more are grateful that this work is being done, to complement their own efforts.

“Providing sex education, in school and in the home, is the single most important thing we can do to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections,” said the acting director of the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme, Dr Stephanie O’Keeffe, at the launch of its annual report last week.

Amid the popular hysteria about the extent of irresponsible teenage sexual behaviour, it is important to note that 2010 marked a new 10-year low in the number and rate of births to teenagers in Ireland. The number and rate of abortions for women aged under 20 giving Irish addresses in the UK also decreased for the ninth year in a row – down by 38 per cent since 2001.

However, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre reports a steady rise in the cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) among people aged 19 and under – although there is no way of telling if this is more due to better awareness and availability of testing, rather than increased incidence.

“The reality of sexual activity is there for adolescents and that seems to be different from what it was for people of my generation,” O’Keeffe says. “It is about responding to that difference – we can respond really positively and helpfully or you can do nothing.”

For parents, informing themselves about this reality and how best to equip their teenagers to navigate it confidently and safely is the first step. Here are questions you might want to ask:

When is my teenager likely to start having sex?

That depends on many factors, some of which you can influence. Studies show that the average age of having first sex in Ireland is 17 – about a year older than in the UK (the age of consent here is 17, whereas it is 16 there.) But you can’t presume your child isn’t – or is – having sex solely on the basis of age.

Roughly one-third of schoolchildren have had penetrative sex – or at least say they have, according to the limited research that has been done in Ireland, says Prof Abbey Hyde of the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems in UCD. Of those, one in five would be under 16.

It is a complex area and we still need to get the bigger picture, stresses Hyde who has done a considerable amount of research into teenage sexuality.

Even if penetrative sex is not yet on your teenager’s agenda, masturbation and oral sex may be. Adolescents are negotiating sexual encounters and sexual intimacies at an increasingly younger age and many are faced with decisions that parents would have hoped their children could have avoided until they were older.

The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland is concerned that a significant amount of sexual exploitation of teenagers, often by their peers, goes unreported. Some 72 teenagers attended rape crisis centres in 2009 and, overall, 247 clients were dealing with sexual abuse that occurred between the ages of 12 and 17. Gay teenagers face additional personal and social challenges. Research on mental health of LGBT people in Ireland in 2009 found that the most common age for becoming aware of sexual orientation was 12 but the most common age for “coming out” was not until 17.

When should I have “the talk”?

The idea of a once-off, formal imparting of sexual knowledge is redundant. Instead, take opportunities that are presented by a child’s questions, or by a television programme or by a magazine article, to discuss aspects of sexuality casually and gradually.

As they are taught the biological basics in fifth class at school, at the age of 10 or 11, it is probably a good idea for the parent to have spoken to the child before then, says Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline. “So they don’t find all their peers in the class know about it and they feel a bit silly.”

Teenagers learn about sex primarily through friends, school or the media – and, for them, parents are not a preferred source. But parents should not abdicate responsibility for sex education to schools.

For a start, although the RSE programme is mandatory at both primary and secondary level, the Crisis Pregnancy Programme estimates that about 10 per cent of schools are still not doing it. Second, RSE is supposed to be a partnership between school and home – but how many parents know what it is and how it is taught?

The medical director of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), Dr Caitriona Henchion, believes sex education can come too late for teenagers most at risk, ie early school leavers. “Fourteen-year-olds are perfectly capable of understanding all this,” she says.

When Henchion delivers sex education in schools, she always makes it clear that the topic is being covered “not because we think you need to know it today” but because it is required life knowledge.

Parents need to reiterate the age of consent with their teenagers, says O’Reilly. “They are not getting that it is illegal to have sex before 17.”

Despite the legal age of consent, the DPP has told an Oireachtas committee that, in practice, his office does not prosecute cases of non-exploitative sexual activity between younger teenagers of similar ages.

Parents also need to impress on teenagers the dangers of underage drinking, as alcohol is a key risk factor for early sexual activity.

Is peer pressure leading to earlier sexual activity?

Peer “influence” rather than peer “pressure” might be a better way of putting it. While teenagers may not be personally pressured into sexual activity, they acknowledge that what seems to be the “norm” in their peer group is a big factor. They don’t want to feel left out.

This belief that “everybody is doing it”, perpetuated by adolescent bragging and sex-saturated media, can clearly be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Only a small number of teenagers surveyed for the Understanding Teenage Sexuality in Ireland (2004) report, indicated that they would not be influenced by the behaviour of their friends and would instead rely wholly on their own beliefs.

However, research shows that girls find themselves walking a very fine line between not wanting to be seen as a “prude” nor a “slut”. And homophobia can cause boys to feel they have to “prove themselves” with a girl.

The peer group is not a problem if things are good at home, says parenting coach Sheila O’Malley. She encourages parents to help children develop respect for themselves and others, as well as to try to give them the confidence and skills to remove themselves from uncomfortable situations.

O’Malley also recalls the advice of child psychiatrist Vincent Maloney: “There are two types of sex, recreational and relational – make sure your kids know the difference.”

The most protective thing a teenager can have against starting sex early is, says Henchion simply, “friends who are interested in school”.

Perception of peers’ behaviour also affects the practice of safe sex, as Hyde and colleagues discovered in a study of 14- to 19-year-old boys. Many of the interviewees said that they reduced their risk of contracting an STI by avoiding females who were believed to be sexually promiscuous.

What can I as a parent do to influence my teen’s sexual behaviour?

Good communication with parents about relationships and sex has been linked in some studies with better use of contraception and a lower likelihood that the young person will have sex before 17.

However, there is no consensus about what works in the term of parent-teen communication, says Hyde. A longitudinal study in Scotland found that “parental monitoring” was more important than ease of communication between parent and teenagers.

“Monitoring” does not mean hiding behind bushes in the park to spy on your teenager or going through mobile phone messages but rather “engaging” with them. This involves expectations within the family that, for instance, a teenager has to ask to go out in the evening, to say where he/she is going and is required to be back by a certain time.

The Scottish study found low parental monitoring was a predictor of early sexual activity in both males and females, explains Hyde. And for females it also predicted more sexual partners and less condom use.

Despite their best intentions, few parents find it easy to talk about sexual matters – nor are teenagers comfortable listening.

The Crisis Pregnancy Programme wants to work more with parents, many of whom find discussing sexual matters with their children “challenging”, says O’Keeffe. “It is more difficult the later you leave it.”

When Hyde interviewed Irish adults about their experiences of discussing sexuality with young people, she found little difference in practice between what went on in families where parents said they were very open about such matters and those where parents admitted they did not raise the subject.

“Situations of genuinely relaxed two-way dialogue about sexual issues between parents and teenagers were almost never described by participants.”

She found the biggest barrier to communication is not reticence or embarrassment on the parents’ part, as earlier research suggested, but rather the teenagers’ response. They try to stop the discussion by claiming they know it all already, or by ridiculing their parents’ attempts to educate or by simply walking away.

Even if I don’t think my teenager is having sex, should I make sure he/she has contraception just in case?

Some parents are in denial. They talk about rampant sexual activity among young teenagers yet assume their adolescents are not the ones involved.

It is foolish to delay discussions about safe sex until a partner is clearly on the scene, however you can make it clear that you don’t condone underage sexual activity.

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of teenagers coming into IFPA clinics with a parent seeking contraception, reports Henchion.

A typical scenario would be a mother explaining that her daughter “has a boyfriend; they are not having sex yet but we don’t want any accidents”.

“We would have parents coming in with 15-year-olds, even occasionally 14-year-olds, where they are just concerned – maybe they feel friends they are with are taking alcohol or whatever. They are just afraid the situation might get out of hand.”

It is a pragmatic decision on the part of parents. If a 15- or 16-year-old girl gets a contraceptive implant that lasts for three years, it tides her over what might be a rocky phase of adolescence, until she becomes more mature and focused – and realises what she might lose through an unplanned pregnancy.

Can my under-age daughter be prescribed contraception without my permission?

The age of legal consent for sex is 17 but the age of medical consent is 16. Henchion argues that it would make a lot more sense if the age of sexual consent was the same as the age of medical consent.

“It seems illogical that you are saying that people can make all decisions about medical treatment including contraception at 16 but they have to wait an extra year before they can legally have sex.”

When seeing younger teenagers, doctors have to decide what is in the youngsters’ best interests, on the basis of the story they have in front of them and the maturity of the person, she says. “You have to make pragmatic decisions although the situation legally in Ireland is that there is no protection for any medical professionals who decide to treat somebody under 16 .”

Henchion would like to see a framework introduced “whereby it is possible to treat younger teenagers where appropriate and have legal protection”.

When pharmacists were licensed last February to sell emergency contraception, commonly known as the “morning-after-pill”, no minimum age was stipulated but some are uncomfortable about providing it to younger teenagers, says Henchion, and refer them to GPs or family planning clinics.

THINK YOU NEED HELP? HERE’S WHERE TO GO

Look at the parents’ section on be4udecide.ie, a website developed by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme in partnership with the Department of Education and Skills as a resource for the RSE programme.

Various booklets and a DVD are available free from the Crisis Pregnancy Programme. See crisispregnancy.ie

The National Parents Council Primary runs workshops for parents outlining the RSE programme and what parents can do. See npc.ie or tel 01-8874475

Speakeasy is an eight-week course run by the Irish Family Planning Association aimed at providing parents with the information and skills they need. See ifpa.ie or tel 01-6074456

Parentline is a confidential helpline: tel 1890-927277 or see parentline.ie

Loving Our Out Kids is a support group for parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender children.

See lovingouroutkids.org or tel: 087-2537699.