Skip to content

Parents ‘not best’ sex advisers?

November 10th, 2005

Dr Petra

In the ongoing discussion in the High Court this week, where the government guidelines on sexual health are being debated, it’s been suggested that parents aren’t the best people to give sex advice.

The discussion centres around the idea that those aged 16 and under can seek contraception and pregnancy termination advice from health professionals. Sue Axon, a mother, is challenging this – claiming parents have the right to know if their child is seeking a termination. Health professionals are concerned if the guidelines are overturned then the risk to young people’s sexual health will be considerable. Removing their right to confidentiality will destroy their trust in health professionals, teachers and youth workers.

In an ideal world, a young person would be able to talk about sex to their parent(s) or guardian. Their parent(s) would be able to confidently and accurately advise them about sex. The young person would then delay sexual activity until such a time it suited them, and would enjoy sex without coercion. They’d also get decent and informed sex education from school, and access to sexual and reproductive health care when they wanted it.

Whilst most parents do a good job discussing the basics of sex, and protecting their children, unplanned pregnancies still happen. In such cases we hope a young person would still seek the advice of their parents and together get health information to help decide what should happen next.

Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world. There are situations where parents don’t feel able to talk about sex to their children, or occasions where a young person is at risk from their parents, siblings or those close to them. Meaning they can’t go to their parents for help or advice.

I’m not sure I agree with a lot of the media coverage that has suggested parents aren’t the best people to give sex advice (this was based by a statement given during High Court discussions).

Some parents may not be good at discussing sex, and there may be some aspects of sex parents understandably won’t wish to discuss. There are topics young people won’t want to share with their parents. After all, who really wants to swap oral sex tips with their mum or dad? However to imply parents shouldn’t be a source of sex advice isn’t helpful.

We need to aim towards a situation where school sex education is thorough and balanced, that parents are enabled to provide basic sex education and be a safe place for young people to confide. But for those children whose parents cannot offer this there also needs to be an alternative safe space to obtain information and gain support.

Whilst some media coverage has reflected these needs, the majority of it has been based on knee-jerk, ill-informed opinions.

From a lot of television, radio and newspaper coverage you’d have thought all under 16s were encouraged on a daily basis to have sex, get pregnant, then seek unsafe, highly surgical abortions in collusion with the medical profession, then after getting a termination behind their parents backs, go home to bleed to death during the night.

Hardly surprising hearing this, that many more parents are now very anxious about what’s going on and the safety of their children. If that’s what I thought was going on I’d be terrified – and angry.

To clarify, most terminations aren’t going to be carried out in secret. If a young person consults with a teacher or doctor, thinking they’re pregnant, every effort will be made to encourage that young person to get the support of their parent or guardian.

Of course the average teenager is going to be scared to admit they’re pregnant. They’ll be afraid of punishment, rejection, or a scolding. Most parents do feel angry if they discover their child is pregnant. However the majority are able to overcome this distress (with professional support if appropriate) and work with other health professionals to decide what is right for the child. That may or may not be termination of pregnancy, although the younger the girl, the higher the health risk she faces if she goes through with a pregnancy.

In the cases where the child cannot be persuaded to talk to a parent, or if the parent poses a risk to the child, then a termination could be carried out without the knowledge or consent of the parent. However if completed in the early stages of pregnancy, terminations are not in-depth surgical procedures, and risks posed to the young girl’s health are small.

Many of the media reports have made out all terminations are traumatic, surgical and distressing. If performed early, they do not have to be surgical, and for many young women may be less psychologically and physically distressing than having a child.

All we can do is continue to request better school sex education, and empower parents to talk to their children to prevent early sexual experience and unplanned pregnancy – and to be sympathetic and approachable (however difficult) if a pregnancy does occur. As well as supportive of whatever choices a young person may make – which might include termination or continuing with the pregnancy (and either keeping the baby or adoption).

The media in particular needs to be more responsible. Certainly they should report the views of concerned parents, or those who disagree with the government guidelines. But to continue to misrepresent what happens if a teenager seeks a termination isn’t helpful to anyone. Least of all teenagers and parents.

If you want some advice for talking to your child about sex click here.

Comments are closed.