Parent-child communication: promoting healthy sexual behaviour


It is a Tuesday afternoon at 2pm in a remote village of Jalo in Nkhotakota.

At a local primary school, parents and children are gathered around a solar-powered radio listening to an interactive and educational radio programme called Tisinthe.

The platform is one of their few sources of information on sexual and reproductive health (SRH), child protection, and gender and human rights. On this day, they are listening to a programme whose theme is ‘Open communication between parents and children on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)’.


Tisinthe is just one of the interventions several non-governmental organisations in Malawi are implementing as one of the strategies to initiate and promote open dialogue between parents and their children around SRHR.

The intervention has community listening clubs (CLCs) across all project districts where parents and their children gather in the clubs to listen to the radio programmes and later discuss issues related to SRHR.

This Theatre for a Change project also has trained teachers, called Agents of Change (AoC), who facilitate the live drama and discussions on a local radio station.


Improving SHR of young people is now undeniably a global priority, evidenced by the growing diversion of efforts from other sectors to interventions that ensure the well-being of youths.

Interventions which aim to promote healthy sexual behaviour typically aim to delay sexual debut, decrease the number of sexual partners and increase condom use.

While some have argued that sexuality education contributes to early sexual experimentation among young people, evidence posits otherwise. Findings from studies conducted mostly in developing countries show that sexuality education has the potential to positively impact knowledge, attitudes, norms and intentions.

Adolescent sexual decision making and behaviour are influenced by myriad factors at the individual level as well as peer, family, community and societal levels. Parents, in particular, play a substantial role in the gender and sexual socialisation of their children.

Discussing topics related to sexuality has been associated with a range of important psychosocial attributes including increased knowledge, better interpersonal communication skills, including sexual negotiation skills and self-efficacy.

Communication about sexuality between parents or caregivers and offspring has also been identified as a protective factor for a range of sexual behaviours, including a delayed sexual debut, particular for females. Overall, findings demonstrate that discussions tend to be authoritarian, characterised by vague warnings rather than direct, open discussion.

“When we were just establishing the community listening clubs, we used to face a number of problems as parents found it difficult to sit and listen to a radio programme that was discussing issues around sexuality. Some parents actually stopped attending the clubs because they felt very uncomfortable,” says Mtende Manda, an AoC at Jalo Primary School in the district.

“However, overtime, the parents that continued attending have changed and are now able not only to sit down and listen to Tisinthe but discuss issues openly with the children during club radio listening as well as at home” she adds.

Many parents and young people report a number of barriers to open dialogue, including lack of knowledge and skills as well as cultural norms and taboos.

Historically, the taboo nature of sexuality discussions between adults, in particular parents, and young people in Malawi has been well discussed and documented. Direct parental involvement in the sexual socialisation of children has been described as minimal.

Rather, the extended family including grandparents and aunts are still instrumental for imparting the necessary knowledge and skills relevant for sexual relationships. With increased urbanisation and social change processes, however, the family unit and consequently adolescent socialisation has been impacted.

When young people feel unconnected to home, family and school, they become involved in activities that put their health at risk. However, when parents affirm the value of their children, young people more often develop positive, healthy attitudes about themselves.

Although most adults want youths to know about abstinence, contraception and how to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), parents often have difficulty communicating about sex.

One big problem has been how to harness the power of communication to help fulfill the survival, development, participation and protection rights of children in a manner that is positive, respectful, stimulating and fun for children and their families.

Understanding how children of different age groups process information, how they perceive, learn from, conceptualise and act upon what they see and hear, will go a long way in ensuring that what, and how, we communicate with children is effective and empowering.

One important aspect coming out of Tisinthe CLC discussions between parents and children is that parent-child warmth and communication can promote health, achievement and self-Esteem.

A Mr. Kalaundi of Ling’awa Village, Traditional Authority Kasisi in Chikwawa is a father of two girls and he attends Chikwawa Primary School CLC.

“My first days attending the sessions were difficult as culturally we were not used to discussing issues around sex with children or in the presence of children. However, after several sessions and role plays that gave us a chance to practise our newly acquired skills, I started opening up. I am able to discuss sexual and reproductive health issues with my two teenage daughters,” he says.

Research shows that good communication between parents and their children result in lowered depression and anxiety levels, and an increase in self-reliance and self-esteem. This is coupled by older age of first intercourse and lower frequency of sex during adolescence than their peers.

A 2009 International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health study conducted in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda found that while the proportion of adolescents reporting having discussed sex-related matters was low (between eight percent and 38 percent), the proportion reporting communication about contraceptives was even lower with no more than 10 percent reporting such communication.

The research indicates that adolescents who have repeated communications about sex, sexuality and development with their parents are more likely to have an open and closer relationship with them in addition to being more likely to talk with their parents in the future about sex issues.

According to 24-year-old Beatrice Chiphwanya of Area 47 in Lilongwe, the close relationship she had with her mother enhanced her confidence in dealing with SRH issues.

“I grew up in a family where I was able to openly communicate with my parents, especially my mother on issues around sex and sexuality. This greatly impacted on how I relate with my mother up to now. My mother is my best friend and a confidant,” Chiphwanya explains.

Other studies further suggest that teens who report previous discussions of sexuality with parents were seven times more likely to feel able to communicate with a partner about HIV/Aids than those who had not had such discussions with their parents.

Usually, when parents make consistent efforts to know their teen’s friends and whereabouts, the young people become more responsible even when choosing sexual partners.

Youths whose parents are open, responsive, comfortable and confident in discussions about sex and related issues participate less often in sexual risk behaviour, suggesting that the quality of communication influences the message adolescents receive about sex.

As Kalaundi testifies, Tisinthe has made it easier for him to openly discuss issues of sexuality with his daughters, compared to earlier, when it was only his wife who could sit down with the daughters.

“Previously, my daughters would discuss issues with only their mother. However, after attending the Tisinthe sessions, they are now able to come to me and discuss different issues. The open communication has in turn improved my relationship with my daughters. They are now very responsible in terms of sexual relationships because they get correct information through our discussions,” he says.

Tisinthe allows parents in CLCs to practise their communication skills with their children through role playing. The programme also features a technical person in health as a guest, message jingles and interviews with members from the beneficiary groups and tips on different health issues complement each other to meet the knowledge, attitude and learning objectives of the programme.

Overall, Tisinthe facilitates the process of learning about the critical importance of communication that is age-appropriate and child-friendly, holistic, positive, strengths-based and inclusive.

Its success proves that communication between parents and children can help children, especially the most marginalised and vulnerable, to survive, develop and thrive. It allows for bridging generational and cultural divides and help reach the goals of social development.

As we know, children are open, receptive, curious, eager to try out new things, infinitely resourceful and tenacious in pursuit of a cause. Malawi, therefore, needs more focused initiatives like Tisinthe to facilitate open communication, not just with adults (whose attitudes and habits are often firmly entrenched) but also with children if at all there is ambition to transform the country into a sexually healthy society.

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