Monday 20 January 2020

Dr Ciara Kelly: Do Irish parents have any idea what their teenagers are really getting up to?

They don't have the baggage their parents had when they were growing up, but our teenagers have baggage of their own, writes Dr Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly with her teenage children Ella, 14, and Oisin, 15, on Greystones beach. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Ciara Kelly

Teenagers may be my favourite stage of parenting. As a mother to a 14- and a 16-year-old - so my house is full of teenagers - and also as a GP who sees lots of adolescents, I find them to be interesting, fun to be around and challenging.

They have a different set of values and cultural references to us. They have lost much of the baggage that we had, growing up at a different point in time. But they have baggage of their own - being bombarded by the 'always on' ubiquitous nature of social media. Living in a globalised world and with a sense of empowerment and even entitlement that we simply never had the confidence to feel.

But what are Irish teenagers really getting up to - do we have any idea?

Drink. The vast, vast majority of Irish teenagers are drinking alcohol from the age of 15, with many starting far younger than that - lots of them with their parent's consent. So the legal drinking age of 18 is largely now an irrelevance.

There's a real difficulty in terms of peer pressure in being a non-drinking Irish teenager too.

So what do you say when you ask them what they drink? "Whatever is available" is the usual reply. With cider, spirits (with or without mixers) and beer being the most popular drinks. And the general consensus is, they drink to get pissed. The taste of alcohol is something to be put up with in order to get that way.

Price and availability are often the only limitations on quantity. Alcohol is usually consumed at a very rapid rate in order to achieve drunkenness - resulting in lots of casualties in terms of passing out, puking or worse.


Weed is the commonest recreational drug used by teenagers, although it is no way nearly as popular as booze - which is the real drug of choice.

The majority of Irish teenagers have at least tried cannabis, even if they aren't using it regularly. Other drugs like yokes (ecstasy tablets) or Ket (Ketamine) are also used, but not to the same extent as weed. Hard drugs like cocaine or heroin are not a big feature for the majority of Irish teens. And cigarette smoking, while it does exist, is not nearly as much of a problem as it was for their parent's generation.


For the majority of Irish teenagers, the notion we were brought up with of no sex before marriage isn't even a thing. Today, most teens see sex as a perfectly normal part of their social or romantic interaction with each other.

The omnipotence of the smart- phone means Irish teenagers have often seen online porn by the age of 11 or 12, which, of course, will leave them with an unrealistic expectation of how quickly you can get a plumber to call around for the rest of their lives. But on a more serious note, it can leave them with unrealistic expectations of what sex in real life is actually like. The progression of teenager's sex lives usually goes like this: Start out with meeting (snogging) each other. Moves on to oral sex - yes, reciprocal, but with blow jobs being more common; and then other sex acts - falling short of full-blown penetrative intercourse. And then sex itself. Sixteen or 17 is the average age for that, but for large numbers of kids it's much younger.

They do know about the need for contraception ; most do not want an unplanned pregnancy and johnnies (condoms) are considered to be the way of avoiding this by most lads.

Girls do come to the GP looking for the Pill, both with and without their parents. And most GPs will prescribe it to them even below the age of consent, without their parent's involvement, on the basis that it's better they have it if they're sexually active than they don't.

They've had sex education all the way up through school, but many are still lacking some of the basic facts when you drill down into their understanding. Most of them seem to think sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are rare and not something they need to worry about.

One of the things I worry about most for them in sexual terms - especially in light of the way they drink - is consent.

It's been my experience as a GP both to see young women who have been sexually assaulted and also to have seen young men who have been accused of sexual assault. I can never know exactly what has happened in those circumstances. But I think advising boys and girls on the need to hear expressed consent is very important. Teenagers are very young, sexually inexperienced and full of hormones. Plus they're often drunk.

I've told teenage boys that they can do better than sleeping with a girl who is unconscious - and that drunk or unconscious girls are incapable of giving consent. I've told them about the importance of asking a girl if she is sure she wants to have sex and hearing a yes - not just the absence of a no - before proceeding.

Girls need to be aware they can end of up in dangerous situations without seeing them coming, so being separated from friends or so drunk you don't know what's going on, is a bad idea.

Social media

Social media is simply part of our kids' lives. Snapchat, The Gram (Instagram) Facebook and Whatsapp never leave your children alone for a minute. And a huge amount of the traffic doesn't happen in public posts but happens backstage in private areas like Facebook messenger - traffic that you'll never see.

There is, of course, some bullying and some people get hurt on socmed, but equally it's an amazing way for them to keep in touch with their pals in other schools, their friends from Irish colleges or indeed just their regular mates. One of the problems is the anxiety and genuine mental health issues it causes them - the fear of missing out (FOMO). The constant over-stimulation of notifications, day and night; the perfect lives that people portray themselves having. All this can leave them - particularly a younger teen - feeling their life is somehow inadequate.


Is it just me or were Irish teenagers never this good-looking? Whether you view it as a good thing or not, this generation puts a great deal of time and effort into their looks. From YouTube tutorials on make-up skills like contouring - which is apparently over now and we've moved on to highlighting - to young lads doing weights down the gym - 'DO NOT FORGET LEG DAY BOYS' - from Tipp to Louth, they look increasingly like young Kardashians.

I don't know a teenage girl who hasn't had her make-up done professionally! And fake tan, gel nails and no pubic hair for girls - and now even for boys - seems to be the way things are going.


If I have learnt anything from parenting and treating them it's this. Simply locking horns with them all the time gets you nowhere and creates upset. Communication is the most important thing. Talk to them but also listen to them.

This is probably the last period of their lives that they will still live at home with you. The last time that you will get to share this much time with them. And very possibly the last time that they will need you this much.


Sunday Independent

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