Áine*, a mother of two pre-teen daughters, was caught off guard one day in 2018 when her daughter asked her what abortion is. Ireland was in the throes of preparing for the ‘Repeal the 8th Amendment’ referendum, meaning pregnancy termination was at the forefront of current affairs. It was inevitable that children would start to ask questions about the procedure, the topic was unavoidable. Yet it thrust many parents well outside of their comfort zone.
The topic of abortion is a contentious one and for many families it’s hardly surprising that it is difficult to address, given its ethical components and the religious make up of Ireland. However there is a wide range of topics that are outside of the comfort zones of many parents when it comes to talking to their pre-teen and teenage children. Our work in Sexual Health West and WISER has always endeavoured to be responsive to what is going on in our community, so we wanted to ask parents: How comfortable are you responding when your kids ask you about sex and relationships? During the COVID lockdown in 2020 we decided to find out.
115 people answered an online survey distributed through local professional channels and social media. 85% of our respondents were female, 5% male and 10% did not disclose. We had a diverse age range of parents, over 80% of whom had their primary and secondary schooling in Ireland. Parents had from 1 to 5 children, with an average of 2.3 children.
What Did You Learn About At School?
Of our respondents, over two thirds had no type of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in primary school and 18% of respondents had no RSE at all in secondary school. Of those that did get some RSE in secondary, they almost all (95%) were taught about heterosexual penetrative sex, with just over two thirds also learning about puberty. Less than one third had education on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), dropping to 25% when discussing HIV/AIDS and contraception. 1 in 8 had education on relationships and less than 5% were taught about consent, sexual orientation, masturbation, gender identity or where to turn to for help, with just one respondent in the survey saying that they received education on pleasure and pornography.
So, Who Else Did You Learn From?
People seek information on relationships and sexuality from multiple sources. In our survey, we asked about people’s main sources. The number one source of learning about relationships and sexuality in their teenage years was friends. The second most accessed source was books and magazines and the third was talking with their parents and caregivers. Despite being able to access the internet, people born in 1985 or later yielded the same results as the group overall. None of the people who identified as male learnt from talking to their parents or caregivers.
Who Did You Turn To For Support ?
When things go wrong or challenges arise in our lives, who we turn to for support is a significant factor in the outcomes.
- -Again, people in our survey primarily sought support from their friends.
- -The other sources of support were evenly distributed between parents/caregivers, sexual partners, and medical health professionals.
- -People were least likely to seek support from a teacher or guidance counsellor or a religious person/group, and
- -Quite a number of people felt they had no one to turn to for help or support when challenges arose.
How Do You Feel Answering Your Children’s Questions About Development And Relationship Topics?
Some topics were well within the comfort zone of all or almost all parents. In our survey, they were:
- -talking to their children about their own bodies
- -accurate body part names
- -good and bad touching
- -personal safety issues and
- -talking about their own relationships.
87% of parents with daughters felt very comfortable talking about female puberty to their daughters. Only 38% of parents felt comfortable enough talking about puberty to their boys to raise the subject themselves. In fact, 5% of parents of boys felt they wouldn’t know what to do or say when their sons asked about puberty. In the survey parents felt more confident talking to their sons about female puberty than male puberty; this is possibly because the majority of our respondents identified as women. Given that 28% of births currently in Galway county region are to women not in partnerships (CSO, 2018), this is possibly a large group of parents in our area who need this extra information and support.
There were many areas where parents were all willing to discuss a topic with their child but a significant proportion of them would like to do it with some help or support. One of these is body image, where a quarter of parents would like some information on how to address this if or when it comes up. One in five parents would like some help discussing consent in non-sexual terms (general touching, sharing photos), 30% of parents would like some support with how to talk about internet safety. 40% of parents would need some support or resources to know how to address inappropriate touching or sharing of images. Parents were most comfortable talking to their children of any gender about alcohol use. Drug use was also generally up for conversation with only 1 parent in the survey saying they would not be happy at all if their child raised this topic. 31% of people would need a bit more information to feel they could handle a conversation about drug use well, with 15% preferring to have some more resources for a conversation about alcohol. 4 in 10 parents would be seek support on talking to their children about different gender identities and the same proportion on how to address their child telling them about incidents that were non-consensual, with two parents saying they would have no idea what to do in this situation.
How Do You Feel Answering Your Children’s Questions About Sex And Sexuality Topics?
In our survey we then went on to ask about sex and sexuality topics with parents. Overall parents’ level of comfort with the topics dropped moving into the next part of the survey, some respondents opted out of responding to these questions at all. However almost 20% of parents felt very confident with all of these topics, which likely reflects our distribution of the survey including professional contacts and people who work in this field.
Of those who answered this section, kissing, pregnancy and pregnancy loss were the only topics that all parents would feel comfortable enough discussing, but up to a quarter of parents would still like support to be able to do that confidently. All the other topics in this section had some parents who would wouldn’t know what to do, some who would avoid the question or some would actually be upset if their child raised the topic . Talking about sex and sexuality with a child was definitely a difficult topic for many of the parents who responded to our survey.
Challenging topics for which over one third of responding parents are seeking information or support on are:
- -sexual acts and slang language
- -sexual pleasure
- -oral sex
- -anal sex
- -gay sex
- -alcohol and drug use as part of sexual behaviour
- -HIV and AIDS and
- -touching of genitals.
Other topics included that parents wanted support on were non-heterosexual sexual orientations, sexual assault and nudes. And, like Áine, 35% of parents would not be comfortable when faced with questions about abortion; some of whom would like support in how to answer and others who wouldn’t want to answer their child at all. Given that some of the respondents to this survey were contacted through our social media pages or our email contact lists and therefore have some interest or knowledge in the area of sexual health, these statistics are surprisingly high.
When asked what she was most worried about regarding her child/s relationships or sexuality, one mother’s concerns were on “the influence of the internet on what sexual content they are exposed to, and how they themselves may become vulnerable such as ‘dick pics’, etc.”. and another mother’s concerns for her son was him “starting too young and not having respect for girls”. Parents want their children to learn about consent, which was mentioned by 80% of the parents who responded to this question, the same proportion who want their children to be taught about pornography and online exposure to sexual topics. One mother describes how she wants to encourage consent; “I take the approach that it’s her body she’s allowed to touch it how she likes. I would like to know what else I can do as she gets older to help her develop confidently.”
What Are The Biggest Challenges For The Sexual Health Of The Next Generation?
The final question asked caregivers what they felt the biggest challenges were for children and young people to develop healthy relationships and healthy sexual behaviour and expression in our community.
Sexual content and nudity on the internet and apps was the most frequently represented concern, acknowledging that parents couldn’t always know what their children were looking at. Caregivers raised the impact of this exposure on the young person’s own sexual experiences in the future, one parent shared her concerns that “the availability of sexual information and images and pornography on the internet means that my teenager can google any question and isn’t reliant on me or his peers for information so it’s not filtered age appropriate. They can be aware of so much but not understand it or be emotionally ready to see or understand it”. The impact of viewing nudity and sexual images and it’s impact on body image was also introduced by most respondents, such as concern over “body comparisons to digitally altered images”, the challenges for young people in “developing a positive body image which they can respect accordingly in spite of how sexualised even children have become” and the impact on boy body image of viewing ‘dick pics’.
Societal issues around gender and sexuality were raised by some parents. A mother responded “I am a single mother and I worry about the lack of a positive male role model for my daughter. I also worry about the gender roles assigned by everyone to her as she develops, about her knowing and being able to maintain her own boundaries”. ‘Slut shaming’ was raised in regard specifically to gender inequalities. One respondent commented, in regard to sexuality, “shame is still a big component in Irish society”.
Finally, the lack of representation of diversity of LGBTQI+ relationships, transphobia, and heteronormative RSE in schools was raised, with caregivers concerned that the fact gender identity and LGBTQI+ relationships were areas that weren’t well represented or addressed could impact on the sexual health of young people.
What Does This Mean For Parents In Galway?
Overall, the survey results are overwhelmingly positive in that they show that parents are willing to have conversations about sexuality and sexual behaviour with their children, even if their own experiences of relationships and sexuality education weren’t thorough. Parents do hold concerns that due to societal issues and their own need for some extra support around these topics their children may not be being prepared adequately to overcome the challenges to developing good sexual health. Caregivers are willing, in most cases, to be open and available to be a support and resource to their children as they navigate their relationships and sexuality development, but in almost all cases there are quite a proportion of caregivers who would like some help.
Parents, communities, youth organisations and schools are all pieces of the jigsaw, that when put together support the development of a young person’s lifelong health. Sexual health is such a key aspect of human health, especially through adolescence when the personal development and behaviour of young people informs their sexual and overall health throughout their lifespan. Parents like Áine know that sometimes the circumstances their children and young people find themselves in hold challenges that parents may not feel confident or resourced to deal with themselves. For us at Sexual Health West and the WISER team, this survey supports our belief that it is important for organisations to address both the informational needs of young people and also the resources available for their caregivers to access.
*Some details have been changed to ensure confidentiality
1 CSO (2018) Vital Statistics Year Summary 2018, Available at https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-vsys/vitalstatisticsyearlysummary2018/ Accessed on 14 October 2020