The sexual health of young people in the UK is a major public health concern.
Recent evidence reporting the limited effectiveness of school-based sex education has
led to renewed research and policy interest in the wider social and cultural influences
on young people's sexual health. Strategies to improve young people's sexual health
which involve parents have been identified as a key area for development. There is,
however, a lack of qualitative data concerning parents' and children's experiences of
communicating with each other about sex and sexuality.
This study examines the content, contexts and processes of parent-child
communication about these issues. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted
with a diverse sample of 61 parents and young people (aged 11-15) from 23 families
in Scotland. Accounts were gathered from multiple members of the same family,
enabling insights into the interaction of perspectives within and across families.
The thesis highlights parents' and young people's understandings of the challenges of
communication, contextualising these within changing dynamics of parent-child
relationships as children reach their early teens. The negotiated management of
young people's pubertal bodies is identified as a significant mechanism through
which 'appropriate' sexuality is implicitly communicated between parents and
children. Parents and children found it difficult to describe their interactions about
sex and sexuality, suggesting that communication itself is a slippery concept. Indeed,
the stereotypical notion of parents and children 'sitting down to talk about the birds
and the bees' appeared far removed from these families' experiences of sexual
communication. The thesis illuminates parents' and children's understandings of the
nuances of communication, which extends the narrow focus on direct talk in much
other research. The active construction of familial contexts in which communication
is either constrained or encouraged is also explored. Fathers' perspectives on the
barriers to communication are particularly elucidated, most notably uncertainty about
the boundaries of 'appropriate' involvement in their children's physical and sexual
development. The thesis concludes by highlighting the implications for the
development of sexual health policy and practice, and the implementation of the
sexual health strategy in Scotland.