Tuesday 30 May 2017

Let's talk about sex

Talking to your child about sex can be daunting, not to mention embarrassing. Bernice Mulligan speaks to Dr Stephanie O'Keeffe about ways of communicating the facts of life to your kids in a clear and open way

Bernice Mulligan

THERE are numerous euphemisms and fables for explaining sex to children: we call it the birds and the bees; we talk about storks dropping little bundles into houses and babies mysteriously appearing under cabbage patches, but for 21st century kids, used to Eastenders and MTV, such quaint but outdated descriptions are probably not going to cut it. But how do you cope if you find the whole area excruciating, and dread the thought of talking about sex with your child?

" You need to acknowledge your embarrassment," says Dr Stephanie O'Keeffe, research and policy manager with the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme, where a lot of research has been done into issues such as the effects of early sex on teenagers, and attitudes about sex education from both kids' and parents' perspectives. " But you must also understand that children are going to be getting all of this info by osmosis anyway from radio, TV etc ... So, it's very important that parents are part of that picture. Do you want them to be learning about all of this in the schoolyard, or do you want it to be something that's discussed at home first?" she says.

" What we try to do is empower parents to have the confidence to have these conversations because such talks are protective. The child will be open about their thoughts and feelings, and parents can then respond protectively."

O'Keeffe believes you can use TV and radio positively as catalysts for discussions about sex. " If an issue surrounding sex or relationships is discussed in a soap or as part of a radio programme, you can ask your child's opinion on it. It's about sharing conversations about sex, and asking children/ teenagers what their views are."

Hitting puberty

Puberty and the teen years is a period when the topic of sex becomes more immediate as your child's body changes, and the issue of boyfriends/ girlfriends may start to come up. How should a parent communicate with their child during this unsettling time?

" There's a very good programme in school for 11 year olds called Busy Bodies. Linking in with school so you know what's happening can be very useful. Also have conversations with your children about what to expect during puberty, explaining that it's a normal thing that happens to everybody. There are also resources we [ HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme] can supply ( see below panel)."

She emphasises that it is also very important to know your child's friends, and to be aware of what's happening in school, and in their life in general.

" There's a lot of evidence around the importance of parental monitoring: that means parents knowing what their kids are doing, who their friends are, what music they're listening to. It's not about saying what's wrong or right; it's about being interested in your child's life. Research suggests this can help impact on potentially negative outcomes such as earlier first sex and teenage pregnancy."

Before they decide

It is also useful to convey to your child the importance of thinking seriously before having sex, making sure they know the legal age of consent in Ireland ( 17) and the potential negative effects of early sex. In 2009, 2,223 teenagers under the age of 20 gave birth in Ireland. This figure is down from 2001 when it stood at 3,087, but there are still lots of challenges around this area, says O'Keeffe.

" Research has linked 'early sex' [ sex under the age of 17] to an increased risk of having a crisis pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection later in life. There's also a greater likelihood that the person will have regretted it. We know it's important for young people to have thought of these things in advance and to have reflected on what the issues are, ie what are healthy and unhealthy relationships, the pressures teenagers feel ('All my friends must be doing this').

" Young people need to understand these issues, and feel empowered about themselves and their bodies so they're not pressurised into doing something before they're ready."

She advises checking out www.b4udecide.ie, a website for young people launched last December, which also has a section for parents and youth workers. It was developed as a result of a wide consultation with teenagers, parents, teachers and youth workers.

" It's a resource parents could share with kids. The impetus here is to have a conversation around something that parents might find a little bit embarrassing. If parents want something that gives an indication of what young people might be thinking or feeling or what their world is now, that's a very good place to go."

Mother & Babies

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