How Does History Affect the Way Inuit Parents Talk to Teens About Sexual Health?

A young Inuit woman.

Inuit parent perspective on sexual health communication with adolescent children in Nunavut: ‘It’s kinda hard for me to try to find the words’” (abstract). Gwen Healey. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, Vol. 73 (2014).

What it’s about: Researcher Gwen Healey wanted to explore the impact of parent-teen communication on adolescent sexual health among the Inuit, a group of indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. To do so, she spoke with 17 mothers and three fathers in Nunavut—the largest and least populated territory in Canada—about family communication on topics related to sexual health and relationships. Healey, who was born and raised in Nunavut, chose this area because of its high rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and teen pregnancy compared to other Canadian territories. Despite the study’s narrow geographic focus, some of the participants’ experiences may ring true for Native communities within the United States.

Why read it: Research shows that adolescents are more likely to practice safer sex when they have parental support to do so. But how do the unique experiences of indigenous groups like the Inuit impact the way that parents communicate with young people? Healey, for example, writes about Nunavut’s experiences in the 1950s, when the Canadian government settled Inuit people into other communities and sent children away to residential schools or to cities for medical treatment. Understanding the connection between participants' shared histories and their children's health outcomes can inform other organizations working with Tribal communities in the United States. 

Biggest takeaways from the research: Parents in the study were part of the first generation of Inuit born and raised in permanent settlements rather than nomadic Inuit camps. As a result, they were the first group whose children had access to other sources of sexual education, including teachers, pop culture, and the Internet, Healey writes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants expressed that communicating with their adolescent children felt like communicating between two worlds, with expectations coming not only from their culture, but also from schools, health clinics, and police.

Two themes emerged in Healey's interviews:

Trouble communicating. Most of the parents in the study had experienced trauma, poverty, and/or hardship during their childhoods as a result of having to leave their homes. Out of the 17 mothers interviewed, 15 had experienced sexual abuse while young. All of the parents described violence, drug abuse, and unresolved trauma as factors in their lives, as well as lack of support to process these experiences.

In light of these circumstances, parents said they felt unqalified to talk to their teens about sexual health, even if they felt it important to do so. Participants' concerns included fear that their children would judge them for having engaged in the same risky behaviors they were trying to prevent and that they as parents lacked the emotional supports they needed to discuss issues around sex and relationships.

Valuing elders. Although many participants talked about how much things had changed since their parents’ generation (e.g., marrying for love versus having an arranged marriage), they also discussed continued respect for their elders and the knowledge they bring to younger members of the community. Some said that teens may even be more receptive to talking to their grandparents than their parents.

The study's findings, Healey writes, point to the need for more support of parent-child and elder-youth dialogues about sexual health and relationships in Nunavut. Inuit families are also in need of culturally sensitive healing and counseling services, she adds, given participants' shared experience of sexual abuse during their own childhoods. These findings echo similar concerns about historical trauma among Native Americans in the United States.

Additional references: Look for more articles about Native sexual health, unresolved trauma and trauma-informed care in NCFY’s research library.

Read about the Cherokee Youth Council's efforts to harness the power of video to address teen pegnancy

We've also shared how Tewa Woman United, a grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau's Tribal Personal Responsibility Education Program, adapted a healthy relationships curriculum to incorporate Tewa cultural values and address historical trauma.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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