It's Complicated - Raising Teenage Girls
From twerking to slut-shaming ... how can parents protect their teenage daughters in a world that demands they grow up too fast? John Meagher asks the experts
It's not easy being a teenage girl in this modern world, a rapidly evolving cultural global village where there are few constants and fewer rules. But if it's difficult for the child, it can also be bewildering for the parent, too, especially those experiencing this phase of rearing for the first time.
And often they don't know where to turn, where to draw the line, when to say 'no' and when to give a tentative 'yes'.
Allison Keating believes the rate of change has been nothing short of extraordinary.
The Dublin-based psychologist says teenagers' relationship with sex has changed utterly in just five or six years.
"It's all down to social media and technological advances," she says. "What's happening is that teens are being exposed to a coarsened version of sexuality on sites like Ask.fm, and they are now able to access pornography 24/7 on their smartphones or tablets.
"That has altered their perception of what sex is and has skewed their expectations as well. You have a scenario where some young girls are behaving in a stereotypically male, laddish way by seeking out casual sexual encounters and having numerous sexual partners. You have young boys who feel that sex should be like the stuff they see online. It's a real worry."
Keating is especially concerned about the risky behaviour of very young teens. "They may have the biological maturation to have sex," she says, "but they don't have the neurological, emotional maturation for it."
Her concerns are well-founded. As well as seeing more clients who are sexually active at adolescence, an extensive survey by Unicef Ireland shows that of those teens who say they have had sexual intercourse, 3pc lost their virginity at 13 years of age, while 7pc lost theirs at 14.
Where once "first base" referred to kissing, Keating believes that today it more accurately describes fellatio – something that was brought into sharp relief last month when explicit photos of a 17-year-old schoolgirl performing a sex act on a teenage boy at a rock concert were widely disseminated on social media.
"That's the other thing that really complicates the picture: there's a big risk now that misdemeanours will end up online, thanks to some bystander with a camera-phone. There are also genuine concerns around the awful phenomenon of 'slut-shaming' where, typically, other girls name acquaintances who they believe have been sexually active.
"I'm not for a moment suggesting that all teen girls are acting this way – of course they're not, most navigate these years absolutely fine – but there is much greater pressure to be sexually active today than at any time before."
It is a sentiment shared by psychologist Deborah Mulvany, whose RTÉ documentary on the subject, Generation Sex, offered something of an eye-opener for blinkered parents when screened earlier this year.
"I wanted to portray teens' views on sex as accurately and as non-sensationally as possible," she says. "Some parents were taken aback by it – especially the fact that their child may be consuming a lot of pornography online – but it is always best to have open discussions about such things and not sweep them under the carpet.
"What's clear is the teen sexual experience today is shaped in ways that their parents simply couldn't have envisaged. The best way to understand your child is to talk to them. Don't assume that someone else will."
Jackie O'Callaghan, spokeswoman for the National Parents Council (Post-Primary), believes some parents can feel powerless when discussing sexual matters with their teen girl.
"It is a conversation they need to have because present-day society is so sexualised. The commercialisation of sex has been frightening to witness, and many kids are being sucked into it.
"It's sad to see pre-teen girls wearing skimpy, revealing clothing, and it is little wonder that when they become a teenager, their choice of clothes gets more and more provocative. In an ideal world, they should be able to wear whatever they want, but the parent needs to sit down with them and tell them why wearing very short skirts and high heels can send out the wrong message – and potentially lead to very serious problems."
She contends that the drink-to-get-drunk culture among some teens only serves to exacerbate high-risk behaviour. "They may understand the importance of safe sex, but that can go out the window if they're inebriated. The tragedy is that some of these girls may pick up sexually transmitted diseases that lie in their bodies undetected until they are in their 20s and 30s and want to have children."
O'Callaghan has two daughters – aged 23 and 29 – and says the teen years of their generation "seem very innocent" compared to what 13- to 19-year-olds have to contend with now.
"Look at that Miley Cyrus twerking episode that everyone was talking about a few weeks back [the former child star performed a sexually explicit dance at the MTV Awards]. How does the parent of an 11- or 12-year-old who grew up with Hannah Montana [the character played by Cyrus] explain to her what she's doing and why she's wearing what she is? It may be an awkward conversation, but it's one that needs to happen."
O'Callaghan believes "old-fashioned parenting" is essential when it comes to helping teenagers keep themselves safe sexually. "Being the cool parent who wants to be their friend does them no favours at all," she says. "There's always one: the liberal parent who's okay with their daughter and friends changing into the skimpy gear at their home.
"As a parent, I really feel that you have to lay down ground rules – and follow through with them. But it's important to explain to your daughter why, for instance, you're insisting they don't wear the clothes they wanted to go out in rather than simply giving them a blank 'no'. It may be a cliché, but communication is key here. You want them to feel that they can approach you with whatever is on their mind, be it of a sexual nature or otherwise."
While there are legitimate fears about the behaviour of some teens – and Wednesday night's Junior Cert results celebrations threw up the usual headlines – there is evidence that teenagers are acting more responsibly, despite the rampant sexualisation everywhere.
"The findings from the Crisis Pregnancy Centre which show that teen pregnancies are in decline, are very encouraging," says Foróige youth worker Petrina Egan, whose specialisation is teen sexual health and relationships. "Intervention is key – teens need to have the safe sex message conveyed to them in a way they both understand and engage with."
Foróige has introduced a sex education programme called Real U which is designed to equip youth workers with the knowledge to educate those aged 12 to 18 on such issues as healthy relationships, body image, contraception, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
"It's especially effective when you get their parents involved," Egan says. "The teen experience of sexuality is changing constantly and we need to keep abreast of those changes so we can help them make sense of it all."
Meanwhile, Keating believes parents should try their best to protect their daughters from "a world that is trying to rob children of their innocence.
"They can feel helpless in the face of Miley Cyrus and Ask.fm, and the maelstrom of sexual images they see their child confronted with every day, but they have to remember that they – more than anyone else – can best protect their daughter. The message is simple: talk".