Should my teenage daughter go on the pill?
We share the opinions of healthcare professionals and parents.
By Claudia Robinson
As much we’d like our children to stay young and innocent forever, it’s inevitable that they’re going to grow up.
They’re going to experience the trials and tribulations of life, whether we like it or not. And one of the big steps towards adulthood is developing relationships – from learning how to manage friendships, to boyfriends and girlfriends, the first kiss and, ultimately, starting to have sex.
For parents of girls, we want to make sure they’re protected from making a mistake that will impact the rest of their life.
So, if your daughter starts having sex – even if it’s at a younger age than you would choose – what do you do about it? Is it right for them to go on some form of contraception as young as 14?
WHAT AN EXPERT SAYS
Lisa Hallgarten is Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Brook, which offers free and confidential sexual health and wellbeing advice.
‘There’s a lot of variety within, as well as between, age groups,’ she tell us. ‘And no magic moment when it’s “ok” for young people start having sex. One 14-year-old might be more emotionally mature and less vulnerable than another 17-year-old.’
So, whatever age your teenage daughter is, if she’s starting to consider introducing sex into her relationship – or if you think she already has – then is it time for her to consider taking hormonal contraception?
And what if she already has and hasn’t told you?
WHAT PARENTS SAY
One parent of a 15-year-old girl living in North Yorkshire shared her approach.
‘I’d like to think we have an open enough relationship for her to come and talk to me,’ she says. ‘Part of me would feel sad that my baby is growing up too fast, but the bigger part of me would be proud that she felt comfortable enough to come to me.
‘I would offer to go with her to see the doctor to discuss her options and perhaps do some research online with her, too. It’s been a few years since I started on my contraception journey, so I’m sure there’s much to catch up on!’
On the other hand, there’s a school of thought which argues that allowing our daughters to start taking contraception encourages promiscuity.
Another mother we spoke to from Darlington told us that, while that thought had crossed her mind, she felt that wasn’t in her daughter’s character and that the positives of contraception far outweighed any negatives.
She told us that the most crucial issue was that, in the loving relationship that she was in, her daughter didn’t get pregnant.
‘In terms of encouraging girls to have sex, some people say the same about delivering sex education, but there’s actually a lot of evidence to show that isn’t the case,’ Lisa explains.
‘People who have a good sex education are more likely to wait longer. And when they do have sex, they’re more likely to have it with someone with a smaller age gap, and they’re more likely to use contraception.’
THE LEGALITIES OF UNDERAGE CONTRACEPTION
‘There is, of course, a legal issue,’ says Lisa.
‘The law recognises that having sex with someone under 16 is illegal. That law is there to protect young people, not to prosecute them. We do see young people who are in consenting relationships, who feel that they’re ready for sex and that they’ve made mutual decisions. We’re happy that they’ve come to us for support as it’s a sign of them being responsible.
‘In reality, if they’re not getting support from a parent, the guidance says it’s up to the doctor to assess their ability to make that decision. They’ll receive a rigorous assessment from a health professional, who’ll consider their maturity to make the decision as well as what the risk would be to that young person if treatment was withheld. Is having unprotected sex the worst outcome?’
A GOOD FOUNDATION, COMMUNICATION AND SEX EDUCATION
As parents, how do we raise our children to feel confident, safe and not embarrassed to talk to us about such important issues?
Lisa says the best foundation is a combination of good relationships and sex education in school, which is focused on empowering young people to make the best decisions for themselves by arming them with all the information they need.
Lisa also explains that setting this education within a framework of values and critical thinking allows young people to think about what the benefits would be of having sex and how they would feel about it. Encouraging them to ask themselves, ‘how safe do I feel in this relationship?’ and ‘how listened to do I feel?’, to emphasise that the most important issues in any relationship are mutual respect, consent and communication.
To try and encourage our children to feel confident talking about sex and contraception, Lisa has this advice for parents:
‘We need to start having these conversations as early as possible. We recognise a role for schools, but parents should try to create a culture where you can talk about these things at home. So, when they have a big life event in their teens and meet someone, the door is open for them to come and talk to you.
‘Of course, you can be the best parent on earth, and they still may not want to talk to you about sex. But laying those foundations is a good place to start. Talking to them about how to wash yourself, naming body parts accurately and having conversations about permission and giving consent are crucial.
‘Consent at a young age can be for many things: asking to play with another child’s toy instead of just taking it, and giving children the language of saying, “actually Granny, I don’t feel like kissing you today”. It can happen organically.
‘When they’re a little older, you only need to watch a soap opera with them once and you’ll get opportunities to talk about relationships. As storylines emerge, discuss them. You’re showing you’re not scared of talking about tricky issues.’
THE BIGGER ISSUES
Lisa believes that there are much larger issues affecting our children and teenagers.
‘There are children watching hardcore pornography at the age of nine,’ she tells us. ‘I’m much more worried about those issues than thinking about young people starting to explore consenting, mutual relationships.
‘Some parents, whether it’s for personal or religious reasons, don’t want their children to have sex until they’ve settled down. But lots of young people will. For me, it’s about making sure those experiences are healthy, safe, warm and kind, and not based on the harmful, violent and misogynistic representations of relationships (if you can even call them that) they see online.
‘In a world where sexual violence and harassment is everywhere, including in schools, we need to embed the values they need to develop healthy sexual relationships where they’re happy and safe. That’s our biggest challenge.’
For more information about sexual health and wellbeing, particularly for young people, visit www.brook.org.uk