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What should you do if your child is having underage sex?

Many teens today are choosing to sleep together from as young as 13 - much to the alarm of parents. SUE LEONARD reports on how to cope with this family dilemma

At 15, Rosie Webster is still a child but that doesn't stop her having sex with her boyfriend, Craig. Her mum, Sally, is furious. She's been trying anything - and everything - to make Rosie see sense.

First, she forced the morning-after pill on her daughter - hoping that the sickness it invoked would bring the girl to her senses. And when it didn't, she went to the police and told them the whole sorry story.

OK, that story is a figment of a screenwriter's imagination. Fans of Coronation Street have been intrigued as they wondered what the angry Sally would do next. But it's an issue that today's parents find themselves having to address.

In England, a quarter of 14-year-olds said they'd had sex - and with an average of three partners. Up to 60pc of the 14-year-olds surveyed last year by Bliss magazine were drunk at the time - and half of them regretted it afterwards.

But that's England, right? Here in Catholic Ireland our teens are much more sensible, aren't they? Not according to the survey by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency last year. The average age for first-time sex for early school-leavers was 13½ years. It's a sobering thought.

Especially as legally, an Irish teen can't have sex until they are 17 - a year older than their British counterparts. But what do the police do about under-age sex? Obviously, when the situation is abusive, action has to be taken. But should they come down hard on teens who are in a good, stable relationship?

In Corrie, the police failed to arrest Craig - giving him a firm talking-to instead. But what's the Garda standpoint?

Some, it seems, take under-age sex seriously? When parents from Tuam found out that their 15-year-old daughter was having sex with her boyfriend (19) they reported him to the gardai.

He was taken to court and sentenced to 11 months - even though the sex was consensual. But the decision was appealed in December because, two years on, the couple were living together happily with a baby boy.

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It's all a bit confusing. The law says 'no sex until 17' but we all know that it happens. So much so, that last year Health Minister Mary Harney said that 11-year-olds should be allowed contraception - including the morning-after pill.

All of which leaves parents pretty powerless. But they should never report their kids to the gardai, unless the situation really does warrant it. Or so says John Sharry, a counsellor, and senior social worker at the Mater Hospital. "People have to make the best judgments in the circumstances," he says. "Nobody can take that away from parents. If you feel the relationship is wrong, and your child is being damaged, the law is behind you. So you should do what you have to do.

"But you do have to reflect. And if you come down heavy on your teen, you may cut her off. And you have to think why the issue concerns you so much. And think about how you can best influence them.

"Talk to them and listen to their point of view. Tell them why you think they should not be having sex - but accept that they might go ahead and do it anyway.

"The best thing is to talk about sex early - when the child is eight, nine or 10. If you create the contact then, they are more likely to talk to you at 13, 14 and 15. If you have not talked at all before then, they will be too embarrassed to bring it up."

David Coleman, a clinical psychologist specialising in families says teenagers "have sex for the same reasons they experiment with drugs and alcohol. They hear there is a buzz about sex.

"Even if not all their mates are taking drugs, if someone suggests them they may well try it. I think it's the same with sex."

So what do you do if your child is having sex? "Make sure they are safe," he says. "If they are already having sex it is unlikely that you can stop them. You'll only alienate them. So give them all the information you can, and keep a good, open relationship going."

"Certainly, you can give them your values, and tell them the dangers, but you should discuss the upside as well. Communicate - that won't necessarily stop them from having sex - but at least it might keep them safe."

What does he think parents like Sally Webster should do? "Go and see the other family, perhaps. The two families together can exert much more pressure."

But it is not all the parent's fault. "You can be the best parent in the world and your child is still an individual human being," he says. "Ultimately, they have to come to their own beliefs . . . And to do that, they probably will go through a certain level of experimentation."

Penny Palmano, mum of three teenagers and author of the parenting book Yes, Please. Whatever! is horrified to think that a parent would report their child to the police. "That's not really tackling the problem," she says. "You will only alienate your child.

"Talk to your child alone, and find out why she is doing this. It could be because she thinks it will make her popular. And that means she has low self esteem.

"Girls who sleep around are still known as easy. So tell them that a boy will respect them more if they say no."

But what about sons? Did Palmano treat Sam, now 18, differently to Katherine or Francesca? "When he was younger, I said: 'I know you chaps can't wait. But for the girl's sake, it shows respect if you wait until you are in a proper relationship. And then, for goodness sake use contraception!'"

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