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Helping parents become sex education experts

October 16th, 2008

Dr Petra

This week I featured in the final episode in the current series of The Sex Education Show in an exercise where I helped parents become more confident in talking to their teenagers about sex.

I’ve had a few enquiries from people asking about how we ran the parents education event and if I could explain more about it, so here’s an outline of the training and support offered to parents and an insight into how we got it all on film.

The challenge
The Sex Education Show was aiming to address a number of issues about sex and relationships. Two key themes that continually come up in this area are
1. the desire parents have to be responsible for giving sex education messages to their child – either because they want to decide when their child needs to know about sex or because they mistrust schools to do this job (or both).
2. the concern many parents have around delivering sex and relationships messages where parents worry they may say the wrong thing, get embarrassed (or embarrass their child), encourage sexual behaviour or reveal their ignorance about sex-related questions.

The result is many parents who’d like to talk about sex and relationships topics are unable to do so as they aren’t sure what to say, don’t know when to talk about sex, and often have had poor sex education themselves so don’t feel confident to raise the issue.

Although there are some resources and classes for parents to teach them how to talk about sex to their children (for example Parentline Plus and the Family Planning Association) many parents don’t know about these or aren’t always able to access them.

So Channel 4 wanted to show examples of parents learning to talk to their teens about sex so other parents and teens watching could get ideas on how to do this themselves.

The aim was fairly simple. Parents would be instructed how to talk to their children about sex and relationships issues and would then have the chance to put their skills into action and answer a selection of questions their child(ren) had about sex.

Because it was for television there was the challenge of making things exciting and televisual which had to be balanced with delivering accurate sex education messages in a way that left parents and teens feeling safe and supported (as we would do in any ‘real life’ sex and relationships class).

I discussed at length with the show’s producers what we wanted to cover – so that we represented a genuine experience for those participating in the filming and the viewers. We also spent a long time exploring how we would incorporate a level of drama into the event so participants and viewers would be interested to know how the parent’s training session went.

We eventually agreed on the following format. Parents and teens would attend a filming session where both parties knew they were coming to talk about sex. The teenagers were told in advance they would be able to ask any question they wanted from a highly qualified ‘expert’. The twist was that the ‘expert’ they would eventually meet was going to be their parent(s). Parents knew this was going to happen and they would be given a training session before talking to their teenagers. All parties knew they would be filmed.

This strategy worked in three ways. Firstly, it gave us a reason to separate parents and teens while teens thought of their questions and parents received their training session. Secondly, it meant teenagers could think of questions they genuinely wanted an answer to but perhaps would not consider asking mum or dad about. And thirdly it allowed us a chance to demonstrate to teens and parents (participants and viewers) that parents really can be experts with just a small amount of support – and that such parents can talk effectively with their children.

All of the training was based around evidence (please contact me if you’d like to know more about this).

Making things ‘televisual’

Usually when I’m working with parents or teenagers I work in an informal setting, meaning we don’t tend to sit in a classroom environment and I don’t tend to stand at the front of the class in a ‘talk and chalk’ style. Most training I offer is far more interactive and participant led. However, for the purpose of filming we needed to signify a school setting, keep participants in a set where they could be easily filmed, and offer a level of protection to participants who may well feel quite exposed sitting around in an informal group. We therefore used desks in a classroom setting. The only thing I didn’t do was to wear a white coat for filming since I’m not a medic and I don’t wear a white coat for teaching. Although it might have suggested to the viewer something more ‘serious’ I wanted to convey how I usually look when I’m at work – and also make parents and teens feel at ease. Fortunately the producers agreed on this occasion a white coat wasn’t necessary.

The families

The five teenagers who feature in the programme were aged between 14 and 16 and were accompanied by a mum, dad or two parents. All the families had discussed sex and relationships issues in the past but the parents were eager to learn more about skills to talk to their teenagers.

Ground rules, ethics and child protection

With any filming involving children both parental and child consent is required as is an element of child protection. Throughout all filming the children were never left alone with any adult other than their parents and were monitored throughout by a qualified chaperone who was there to see no child became distressed, tired or uncomfortable. The TV company making the programme agreed that we could run the session as though we were doing it in ‘real life’ meaning parents and teens knew they didn’t have to discuss anything they didn’t want to, could leave at any time, and were encouraged to supportively discuss issues together. Regular checks were made on everyone’s wellbeing and all participants signed release forms for filming at the close of the day (parents gave additional consent for their children at this point).

Parent Support Session

Within this session (which lasted approximately one hour) I introduced myself to the parents, explained what we would be doing and went over the ground rules to ensure people felt safe and supported. As an icebreaker parents discussed their own experience of sex education – sharing humorous and sometimes emotional stories together. Next, we considered any particular concerns or questions the parents had about talking about sex and relationships to their teenager, and reflected as a group how we could overcome any problems. During this time I also outlined several strategies for talking to your kids about sex which included advice on how, when and where to bring up conversations and how to ensure discussions went beyond biology.

During this time the teenagers were writing out their questions about sex (and being filmed doing this). Once the parents had completed the two activities outlined above I gave them a list of the teenager’s questions. We deliberately did not identify at this time which teen had asked which questions so the teenagers could choose at a later stage what questions they wanted to ‘own’ and ask their mum or dad about. Each child asked two questions so there were 10 questions in total for parents to find answers to.

Parents were relieved to see they were able to answer most of the questions, although there were a few where they sought reassurance and confirmation. After we had been through the questions we took the parents back to be with their teenagers.

What teens wanted to know

The questions asked by the teenagers were as you might expect. They included ‘is it safe to use two condoms at the same time?’, ‘how does the pill work?’, ‘what’s a female condom?’, ‘can you still bleed when you’re on your period?’, ‘can you break your own sex wall?’, ‘what’s the most common STI?’, ‘does size matter?’. In some cases the teenagers indicated they had been confused over information and wanted some clarification. For example the teen who asked ‘can you use two condoms at the same time?’ had been told at school this was okay, but read in a magazine that it wasn’t, and wanted to know what was the correct answer.

We discussed with the parents what they could say in their answers and how to feel confident giving their replies, but we left it up to individual parents how they wanted to deliver any messages – for example with humour, by asking their teens further questions, or through getting their teenager to say what they thought the right answer was. We outlined various techniques parents could use to extend any conversation to ensure their child went away feeling reassured.

Turning the tables on mum and dad

As parents we very well meaning want to talk to our children about sex, but since our parents may not have talked to us much (or perhaps we’ve forgotten if they did talk to us) we may not be aware how it feels to have someone raise a sensitive topic. So during the course of the day of filming we encouraged the teenagers to cross-question their parents about their own teenage years. This led to some amusing conversations where parents revealed their own first sexual experiences, what they’d been taught about sex, and how they felt about relationships. It allowed parents to feel how a teenager might when the subject of sex is raised and also enabled the teens to realise that mum and/or dad also were like them once and had their own hopes and fears about relationships – and unanswered questions about sex.

The question and answer session

Each teenager and their mum, dad (or both) were filmed privately talking together. Each child was invited to ask the questions they’d previously thought of. This would put their parents on the spot somewhat since they’d prepared answers to all the questions but didn’t know which ones their particular child wanted to know about. The teenagers knew they didn’t have to ask anything they didn’t want to, but all asked their questions and some asked a few more! I sat behind the cameras for this exercise to offer moral support to the parents and any additional answers if they wanted them – although in the event they didn’t need any further help from me. This session also allowed us to coach parents to follow up on things their teens had said – for example to ask them why they wanted to know answers to a particular question.

After these discussions were filmed parents and teens were filmed separately reflecting on how they’d found the experience. And we encouraged them to be honest about how they felt so they didn’t have to say it was all okay if they’d not found it useful. Conversations with parents off camera suggested they found the day more informative than they had expected, while teens said it was embarrassing talking about sex on camera but they did feel they might be more likely to ask for advice from their mum or dad in future.

Support and closure

At the end of the day all parents and teens were given a help sheet that contained a reminder list of how to communicate and a selection of websites and resource materials to help find out more about sex and relationships. My details and that of the TV company were provided, along with information about support organisations so if the day raised any issues for people there were places they could go for help.

The final cut

If you want to see how this all worked out you can see a teaser clip of the sex education teaching challenge here in the first film of the page ‘Teens and parents talk sex’. Or watch the whole programme again here (click on the play again button for the 14 October show) – this is worthwhile as the show also covers topics on sexuality, libido and an interview with education minister Jim Knight about whether sex and relationships education will become statutory.

See for yourself how we got on. Let me know if you’ve any comments about the filming. If you want me to come and do some training with you then you can get more information about what I offer here.

I think it’s the first time we’ve shown a parent sex education class of this kind on television, and although it’s only a small part of a wider series the one thing it does show is that parents know more than they think they do, that with a small amount of support parents and teens can talk together – and if these guys can talk to their kids about sex on the telly then you can definitely talk to your children at home!

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