Adolescents are bombarded with sexualised images and messages, yet the one place there probably still is not enough talk about such matters is in the home.
Parents struggle to find the right place, the right time, the right words, to discuss relationships and sexuality. Embarrassment and fear about what might be too much information too soon are some of the factors holding them back, according to research. Many are more than happy to leave it to the schools.
Yet there is plenty of evidence that good parent-child communication about relationships and sexuality is likely to help young people make healthier sexual choices later in life. They are more likely to delay first sexual intercourse and to use safer-sex practices when they do have it.
To support parents in having what are clearly difficult conversations, the Health Service Executive Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme is launching its latest additions to a suite of resources that are branded: “Making the ‘Big Talk’ many small talks.” There is a new 46-page booklet for parents of 13-18-year-olds, which offers helpful ways to approach a wide range of topics, as well as a series of video animations targeting parents of younger children, backing up the previous publication of guides for children aged four to seven and eight to 12.
We should be aiming to prepare our offspring for a lifetime of healthy relationships and safe, pleasurable sex, which will be good for both their physical and mental health. Here are eight things you need to know about talking to your teenagers:
1 Parents matter
You might think that, between school programmes and prolific media sources, there is little we can tell adolescents about relationships and sexuality that they don’t already know. Yes and no.
The truth is that they know a lot and they are getting information from a huge range of sources, says Moira Germaine, education and training manager with the HSE’s Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme (SHCPP). However, they don’t always know how to sift through that information and need a safe sounding board, which parents can provide, to make sense of what they’re seeing and what’s going on in their friendships and relationships.
“Parents are crucial as that kind of moderator of what is being aimed at their children,” she says. The longer you avoid these topics the more you’re leaving it to outside influences, such as the pornography industry (as illustrated in recent interviews with teenagers in The Irish Times) to shape their minds.
A 2020 survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that 13 year-olds rely on parents and family as their main source of information on sexuality and relationships but that this changed as they got older. By the time they reached 17 they depended on friends rather than parents as their main information source. The study, “Talking about Sex and Sexual Behaviour of Young People in Ireland”, also showed that at the age of 13, only seven per cent relied on media to discover sexual health information, but by 17 this had increased to 20 per cent.
“Even as they get older and pulling away, the research shows they are still reliant on their parents,” says Germaine. It just may not be as obvious as it used to be. Research also indicates parents can be over-dependent on schools for relationships and sex education – “They want to follow them rather than lead” – whereas parents are the first and foremost educators of their children and the biggest influence. Parents are much better positioned to tailor the content and tone of these discussions to individual offspring, taking into account their maturity and wider social environment, than, say, a teacher facing a class of 20.
As parents, we are giving messages about relationships and sexuality from the moment our child is born, she points out, whether we know it or not. If we can be more aware of that, we can decide what messages we want to give, and these HSE resources aim to help parents figure that out.
2 Don’t let embarrassment stop you
Neither your feelings of awkwardness nor a cringing teenager should dissuade you from conversations about sexuality. It is absolutely normal to be embarrassed, says Maeve O’Brien, interim programme lead of the SHCPP, and, as with everything in life, it gets easier with practice. Maybe rehearse some of the terminology out loud to make you more comfortable about bringing it up in conversations.
“It is a matter of persevering as well,” she advises. If the young person turns away and doesn’t want to speak about it, then parents need to find other opportunities. Prepare yourself, not for “a one-time performance” but for chat lines that you know will inevitably crop up with your teenagers. Remember, car journeys provide a private space and a defined length of time to talk, side by side, without eye contact.
It is very important to think of it as a two-directional, interactive conversation, says Germaine. There is every chance your teenager will know more about some aspect of the contemporary sexual landscape than you do but you have a wealth of life experience to share. If you approach it as a joint learning experience, she suggests, it is less likely to be a lecture and something that teenagers reject.
3 Think relationships, not sex education
Put aside your notions of sex education and look at this in the much broader context of healthy relationships. You will have been teaching children about those from the moment they were born, through their interactions with you, extended family, their peers and the wider community.
The parental relationship will influence all future relationships, says Germaine. The ESRI research showed that families which have good parent-child relationships are more likely to talk about relationships and sexuality topics.
Information is only a small part. “It’s about developing the attitudes, the behaviours, the skills that they will need to be independent autonomous adults.”
It is not realistic to think that parents and teens will always get on, she acknowledges, but try to stay connected. “Find those moments where you can actually connect and that they know they have this safe, warm supportive place that they can come back to.” If they persist in stonewalling, signpost them to reliable sources, such as childline.ie and spunout.ie (aimed at 16-plus) for information.
4 Be positive and don’t shy away from pleasure
Traditionally, sex education has come couched in warnings but the HSE encourages parents to highlight the positives, not just the risks. “As a health service we can say there are really positive physical and emotional benefits to having a healthy sexual relationship in the adult years, if that’s your choice,” says Germaine. She would encourage conversations with adolescents about what a sexual relationship involves. Talk about the emotional and social consequences – both good and bad – as well as the importance of safer sex, including the consistent use of condoms.
“We tend to pull away from talking about the notion of pleasure. But pleasure can be protective,” she says. As a concept it was noticeably absent among teenage mothers in research conducted when the numbers of teenagers giving birth were much higher than they are now. (There has been a 73 per cent drop over the past two decades.)
“They didn’t expect to get pleasure; it was all about keeping a partner and serving a partner,” says Germaine, who believes those attitudes still exist in our culture. If there was more focus on mutual respect and mutual pleasure, “people might have fewer but more satisfying sexual engagements”.
5 Relationships start with sense of self
Never has there been more talk of “boundaries” and “consent” but think, says Germaine, how difficult it is to set a boundary if you have no idea who you are, what you want and what your worth is.
We need to convey to teenagers that “the most fundamental and important relationship you will have is with yourself. When we talk about relationships and sexuality, often the jumping off point is with other people. But actually, if you don’t have a sense of yourself, your self-worth and your ability to have control in your life, it is very hard to think what your values and boundaries are and how to assert your boundaries.”
A definition of consent as “ongoing, mutual and freely given” applies at the point of sexual activity, but there is much work to be done to prepare teenagers for the run-up to that point.
6 Don’t get hung up about what’s too much too soon
The issue of whether too much information will accelerate teenagers’ sexual experimentation is a parental concern the world over. It is “much more likely that damage will be done in silence rather than the parent going too far”, says Germaine.
There is good evidence to show that relationship and sexuality education and parental communication can have a protective effect, in delaying sexual activity and supporting use of contraception when young people do become sexually active.
7 Share your values
You might feel your attitude to sexual behaviour is out of step with what goes on today but that doesn’t mean you can’t say what you think. It is how you express it that matters.
“There is a difference between imposing your values and sharing your values,” says Germaine. “When children are younger, the vast majority of parents are wanting to instil attitudes and behaviours around healthy relationships, how to respect people.” In the teenage years they still benefit from a sharing of parental views and the HSE is certainly not suggesting this is a “value free” information zone.
“Different families have different values, different cultural and social backgrounds,” she says. If it is your belief that sexual intimacy is best kept for long-term relationships, or even marriage, there’s no harm in saying that, as long as you don’t judge them for thinking and doing otherwise. Your job as a parent is to prepare your child to be an independent, autonomous adult, making healthy decisions for themselves.
“If parents go down the route of abstinence-only education, there is good evidence, particularly coming out of the United States, that that is not protective of young people,” says Germaine. They are no more inclined to abstain than their peers and when they do engage in sexual activity they are not prepared for safer sex.
However, when teens are supported in delaying first sex until they feel emotionally ready, research indicates that as adults there is less chance they will regret their earlier sexual experience; they will have fewer partners over a lifetime and they will have a lower risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI).
8 Fathers need to step up
There is still a widespread assumption that this is a job for mothers. Or, perhaps, that fathers should discuss it with sons and mothers with daughters, when in fact a sharing of perspectives would be much more beneficial.
Less than 50 per cent of fathers in Ireland had discussed relationships and sexuality with sons or daughters by the time their children had reached age 17, according to a study of longitudinal data. As a HSE summary of relevant research points out: “Fathers’ reservations are not lost on children. Young men in Ireland reported finding it difficult to talk about relationships and sexuality with their fathers.”
“This is not about being a mother or father,” says O’Brien. “If you are a parent it doesn’t matter about the gender of your child, we should all be having these conversations and developing close relationships with our children, so they can ask these questions.”
Germaine believes we are underserving boys and girls in different ways. Boys generally get less sex education, both at school, particularly in single-sex schools, and at home. The focus still tends to be on the girls, but with an emphasis on the risk of pregnancy.
“When boys are mentioned, it is often in a blaming way, that boys are the aggressors, which alienates boys.” It is important to find ways to engage with boys, to develop their sense of masculinity in a positive way. Boys are emotional, vulnerable and want to connect just like anyone else, she adds, but they might not be able to express it.
“Fathers have a different perspective on a lot of these issues and these are really important perspectives for children to hear,” agrees Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents’ Council Primary. “For a daughter growing up, a mother can’t talk about how boys feel growing up, whereas a father can. His insight and experience are really useful to the daughter in that respect.”
Call a penis a penis
Using nicknames for the penis and vagina with small children sows the seed for shame and awkward conversations when they’re older.
“It is immediately creating that sense of something different about these body parts,” says Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents’ Council Primary. We wouldn’t dream of being so coy about an elbow or a leg. If you don’t introduce the correct terms until you’re trying to talk about sexuality, often the most shocking thing for the child in that conversation is to hear their parent saying the word “penis” or “vagina”, she suggests, because those are not words that have been used in the home.
“All that feeds into the talk being incredibly uncomfortable for the parent and the child sitting through it.” If you have delayed all mention of such matters up to age 10 or 12, do you really think they are going to believe you if you turn around and say they can talk to you about this at any time?
The National Parents’ Council has worked with the HSE on the development of the “Making the ‘Big Talk’ many small talks” resources to support parents in talking about relationships and sexuality with their children. These are complex conversations, says Lynch, and when parents are advised to make them “age appropriate”, they may wonder what does that mean. It is allowing the child to lead the conversation, she explains, answering the questions they ask and addressing the concerns and confusion they might have at any stage of their development.
Children in late primary school and early teens can use quite advanced language around sexuality and sex, making parents think they know it all already. But they may not understand the words they are using.
“If they are out there in the community talking very adult, sexual language it can leave them in very vulnerable positions with others. So it is really important that parents engage with children around their knowledge – what they do and don’t know – and are prepared to talk and answer questions young people have.”
The transition from primary to secondary school is a very difficult time on multiple levels. They go from being the biggest child in primary school to the smallest child in secondary school; they’re going through puberty; they’re wanting to be grown up and independent but don’t quite feel that and it is often the time they are given their first smartphone.
It’s all very well saying parents “should” and parents “must”, Lynch adds, “but parents would be doing it if they felt competent in doing it and understood why it is so important. So, if they’re not doing it, we’re not preparing them properly and that is why I think these resources from the HSE are so important.”