How Relationships Education supports children and their parents

For Sexual Health Week 2020 and throughout September, Brook is celebrating the introduction of mandatory RSE in all schools in England. Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw, talks to us from the position of being a parent and psychologist, about the ways in which RSE is beneficial for children’s development.

What if there was something that we could provide for our children that would protect them against poor mental health, promote good self-esteem, improve their ability to create and play, support the development of their emotional intelligence and ability to manage their behaviour, improve their problem-solving skills, and make them more able to recover from life’s inevitable traumas? 

Yes please!  

As a parent, I know that one of the most important things I can give my child is the ability to form and maintain relationships.

Healthy dependable relationships are what gives our children all the life advantages I have listed – and much more.  As parents the relationships we have with our children set the stage for their future relationship development. With a good foundation it is easier for our children to make friends at school, to relate to their teachers, to ask for help, to try new things, to learn and to flourish.  

Good relationships are crucial in a child’s life 

Feeling loved and accepted helps us develop good self-esteem, the confidence to explore our sexuality and express ourselves. Sadly, there can be pressures and uncertainties around sexual identity that lead young people to feel unable to truly be themselves – leaving them believing they need to keep parts of themselves hidden, and that parts of themselves are unacceptable or ‘bad’. This can have a negative effect on many areas of their lives.  

When I ask my child ‘What did you do at school today?’ what I am really asking is ‘Were you happy? Did you have someone to play with?’ 

One of the most heart-breaking things we can hear from our children is that they have no friends, or they feel lonely or left out of things. We instinctively know that these relationships are so enormously important to our children’s wellbeing that everything is made OK if they have friends; the sense of safety and belonging that comes with friends is the foundation to play, learning and development. 

The importance of connecting with others

Our shared experience of living through lockdown and the forced separation from colleagues, friends and family has shown us all too starkly what it is to have our relationships interrupted and restricted. It has affected our wellbeing and we have longed to get back to ‘normal’ so we can have free access to others and to the comfort and joy these relationships bring us.   

My daughter, as only a child can, expressed the importance of relationships in her recent description of her first day back at primary school. Like many other children throughout the country, she had not seen her classmates since March.  

I asked about her day: ‘Was it strange seeing your friends again? Did you feel worried or shy?’ 

In response she told me: ‘Mummy it was epic! I needed a poo all day but I held it in so I didn’t lose time with my friends!’ 

Relationships education is most effective when it happens both at home and at school 

When I think about my child’s future relationships, my hopes and dreams for her are that she feels safe and secure to be the person she wants to be and to express her sexual identity in the way she wishes. I hope she is able to form and maintain romantic relationships that are equally committed, healthy and dependable. As her parent I do everything I can do to ensure this. I endeavour to provide her with unconditional love and acceptance, I am curious about her motivations, thoughts and feelings and I try to set appropriate boundaries, while always putting the relationship first. 

Relationships education in the school setting can sit alongside our efforts as parents. RSE provides the theoretical and academic accompaniment to our experiential teaching. 

Romantic relationships and sexual health are vital parts of a child’s education. RSE in schools, alongside healthy relationships with parents/carers and friends, can support children and young people to make healthy informed decisions around their sexual health and wellbeing, to explore and express their sexual identity, and to be the person they want to be. This education can help them feel confident in understanding consent, setting their own boundaries and looking after their own wellbeing. 

Without the knowledge or experience of what a healthy relationship should look like, young people are more vulnerable to finding themselves in relationships with unequal commitment and potentially detrimental power dynamics. 

Thinking again about my hopes for my child – I hope she is able to notice if a relationship is unhealthy, to recognise coercion, gaslighting, grooming or controlling behaviour. I hope she will have the confidence to leave toxic relationships and accept only the best – a healthy, equally committed relationship in which she is able to respect and be respected, to set boundaries around sexual behaviour and preferences, to ask for outside help and support, and to be happy.  

Healthy relationships truly are the foundation for all that we are and can be. They are vital to our happiness, and RSE can play a huge role in preparing our children for the many relationships they will have throughout their lives. 

Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw is a Consultant Clinical and Executive Coaching Psychologist, and advises the family relationships charity FASTN.  

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