Monday, 2 July 2012

Parents and health professionals

Recently in my role as CEO of Brook I have been asked three times whether I have my own children. I assume from the way the question has been asked that this is a shorthand and somewhat peculiar way of checking whether I could have the best interests of young people at heart. In fact I have been told explicitly that I cannot really understand the issues unless I am a parent. In the same period I have been told that health professionals are undermining the authority of parents.

No I am not a parent, and no I do not believe that health professionals undermine parents.

Parents have a unique relationship with their children. Ideally the relationship will be nurturing, loving and caring: helping the child learn and grow, develop their sense of self and their identity with confidence.

And in the best of worlds every single child would experience that care from parents who were confident and able to talk to their children about growing up, relationships, sex and sexuality. Whilst this is true for some young people, sadly it is not the case for many whose parents may have difficulty talking about sex, sexuality and sexual health. In the very worst cases children are hurt and abused by their parents.

But even in a perfect world full of perfect parenting, health professionals would still be needed in abundance because they offer professional expertise that is different to the personal relationship of care that parents have with their children. These health professionals provide clinical advice about contraceptive choices and the different issues that need to be considered when choosing a method of contraception. Clinicians may also need to provide emergency contraception, advice about pregnancy choices, referral for, or provision of, abortion, as well as testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Within and outside Brook health professionals do their work with young people in the context of care and respect for young people's rights. They also encourage and support young people to talk to a parent or another adult they trust. And of course they only provide contraception to young people if they believe they have the capacity to consent as defined against the Fraser guidelines which were established in case law.

The evidence tells us what we need to do if we want young people to be confident in their sexuality, only have sex they actively choose and can enjoy and take responsibility for. It includes

• good parenting where parents talk to their children about bodies, relationships, growing up and sex
• good quality relationships and sex education in schools
• access to confidential sexual health services

In the absolute majority of cases parents know this to be true. That is why there is such a strong consensus in support of school based sex and relationships education and the provision of confidential sexual health services for young people.

That consensus exists despite the fact that many parents don’t find issues of sex, sexuality and relationships easy to address with their children. When I talk to parents they tell me ‘I hope my child does not have sex too early; I hope they are able to talk to me and if they can't I hope they find a professional they trust who will help make sure they are safe.’

Health professionals provide important clinical advice and rights based support to young people who need it day in day out. Some of those who need that support are the most vulnerable young people, some are having sex, some are being hurt and exploited.

I and every health professional or sex educator I know values enormously the unique role that parents must, can and do play in young people’s lives. I have never met a health professional who sets out to undermine parents. I also value the important and different role health professionals play for all young people including the most vulnerable.

I want parents to be children’s first sex educator (see the brilliant Speakeasy book published by which helps parents talk to their children), and most sensible people want to ensure children and young people have good quality relationships and sex education in school, and access to confidential services as well.

Whether I am a parent is irrelevant, and the view that health professionals undermine parent’s role is not true. It cannot be a coincidence that those same people who ask whether I am a parent often want to promote abstinence-only, abolish relationships and sex education and limit young people’s rights to confidential sexual health services.

By working together we can change our culture so we have high expectations of young people, in order that they have high expectations for the relationships and sex they choose to have, when they are ready to have it.

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