Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, especially among young people. Is it up to parents to tell children about the dangers of unprotected sex? And if so, how can parents tackle it?
Many parents think it’s the school’s job to tackle STIs through sex education.
But David Kesterton, who runs FPA Speakeasy courses that give parents the skills to talk to their children about sex and relationships, disagrees.
“Parents can make a huge difference by backing up what schools are doing – it needs to work as a partnership. Parents should find out what the school is covering and then embark on conversations with their children about these issues at home,” he says.
Talking about sex
Before you tackle STIs, you need to know what you’re talking about. Leaflets are available in GP surgeries, clinics and online. They can be a good starting point for conversations at home. The internet can also be a useful source.
Broaching the subject is often the toughest part for parents. Even if you’re not embarrassed, there’s a chance your child might be mortified at the mere mention of sex, let alone STIs.
David says: “It’s not about having one big conversation. Talk about it whenever you need to. It needs to be a series of small ongoing conversations that will build on their knowledge and take away the taboo around it.
“STIs, specifically, need to be linked to general health and not remain a ‘no-go area’ for conversations,” he continues. “It’s all part and parcel of growing up and having happy and healthy sexual relationships.”
Starting the conversation
If you’re worried you’ve missed the opportunity, it’s never too late. But make sure you build up a rapport with your teenager over time, rather than including everything from protection to STIs in one long lecture.
You could use television programmes as an opportunity to raise issues and normalise the situation. Or try starting the conversation when you’re doing something else, like driving or washing up, to take the pressure off.
STI treatment and teenagers
Many young people don’t get treated for STIs because they’re embarrassed. But parents can help to take away the stigma and put their children at ease.
Remind your child that you were young once (even if they find it hard to believe!) and consider drawing from your own experiences when you were around their age.
Some parents worry that talking to their children about sex and STIs might encourage them to grow up too young and become sexually active sooner.
“There’s no evidence that suggests that being open and having conversations about safer sex or STIs will encourage experimentation or earlier sexual activity,” assures David.
“The evidence points the other way – if young people grow up discussing these matters and are informed, they’re more likely to delay having sex for the first time. The curiosity factor isn’t there to the same extent and therefore it becomes more about waiting until you’re ready and making an informed choice.”
“If you are aware your child is sexually active, you should be encouraging them to get tested for STIs,” says David. “And they should be screened again each time they embark on a new relationship. Untreated STIs have serious consequences but they’re easy to test for and to treat.”
Young people also need to be aware that some STIs don’t have symptoms, such as chlamydia, which can affect your fertility.
Prevention is the best solution – so ensuring your teenager understands how important it is to use a condom is crucial.
Many teens don’t like the feel of using condoms and often fall back on the pill as a means of contraception, which doesn’t protect them from STIs.
“It’s important young people are made aware that everyone has the right to confidential support or advice from a clinic or their GP, whatever their age,” says David.
Make sure they understand this and know about local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics they can attend. Some run drop-in appointments – so you don’t even need to book – while others offer same sex services.
The emphasis is always on confidentiality. You don’t even have to give your real name when you go to a GUM clinic and nobody (even friends, parents or your doctor) is told that you’ve been.
Visiting a GUM clinic
Most young people that visit a GUM clinic are terrified about their parents finding out. Although it might not be what they want, support your child by letting them know you’ll go with them if they want you there.
Reassure them that the majority of STI screening procedures are not nearly as bad as they might think – a lot of them only require you to pee in a pot or have a quick swab taken. Chlamydia tests can even be carried out at home now.
If they do have an infection, as well as being treated they will also be offered advice about informing sexual partners. The clinic can even do it for them, without disclosing their name.
Facing the facts
The idea of discussing sexual health, let alone accepting the idea that your child might be having sex, can be difficult for parents.
But the statistics are proof that STIs are spreading, even though many of them are often easily treated. One in 10 people between the ages of 16 and 25 carry chlamydia.
While just 12 per cent of the population are aged 16 to 24 years old, this group accounts for more than half of all new STIs diagnosed in the UK.