As your teenager heads off to school, they’re walking into a maze of adolescent experiences waiting to happen, including dating and sex. If you talk to your teen about sex and sexuality, they might react indignantly or recoil in horror (“Mom! Dad! Gross!”). Young people are often hesitant to open up to adults because they may fear being judged or may feel the conversation topic is uncomfortable. However, as a parent one of the best things you can do is talking, supporting, and listening to them about these topics. A majority of people who are sexually assaulted are first assaulted before the age of 25, and 40 percent of female sexual assault victims are assaulted before the age of 18.
So where do you start? First, you need to know the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors.
Healthy relationships have open and honest communication where both partners respect each other’s choices and boundaries. Dating behaviors may start out healthy, but can become unhealthy when partners do not communicate their boundaries. For example, a dating partner may start a relationship by discussing sexual activity, but begin using unhealthy behaviors by exerting control over how quickly both partners should explore sexual activity with each other. When dating partners do not discuss such behaviors and do not set boundaries in the relationship, unhealthy behaviors can get worse and may lead to more severe or abusive behaviors.
Begin by opening up a casual and calm conversation about these topics. Frame the conversation as a way of loving your child. Start from a place of compassion and caring instead of a place of fear. Talk to your teen about what healthy sexuality means to them, and acknowledge that their sexual activity may be an integral part of their dating experience (even if they are doing nothing more than kissing). Let them know that sex can also be used as a tool of power and control. Teach your teen to assert their boundaries and respect those that their partners set. Know the warning signs of dating violence, and make sure your teen does, too. Specifically, talk to them about the warning signs of sexual abuse, such as a dating partner demanding explicit photos or video, or telling them they’re immature if they don’t consent to sexual activity.
Speak calmly and openly about sexual assault, and how important it is for your teen to talk to their partner about boundaries (and respecting those boundaries). Become versed in the concept of consent. If your teen does not grant consent and affirm "yes" to sexual activity, then they have not given their consent, plain and simple. Sex without consent is assault. Remind them or introduce them to the concept that they are also allowed to stop sexual activity at any point. It is important for you to also express that if your teen (or your teen’s friend) are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs they cannot legally give their consent for sexual activity.
Even if your teen isn’t dating anyone, it’s still good to have these talks -- not just because they’re likely to date someone later, but also because it’s equally important to talk about bystander intervention. For example, if they see someone coming on too strongly to a friend at a party, they can turn on the lights or shut off the music, or text or call 911 to have the cops break up the party.
As a parent, you may not always be happy with the person your child has decided to date or the decisions they make, and that’s totally fine. Instead of judging their choice of partner, focus on supporting your child and discussing healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors with them. If your teenager feels judged, they may shut down or refuse to talk to you about the relationship -- more importantly, if something is wrong in their relationship, they may not ask you for help. It’s common for teens to romanticize their relationships. Support this, but let them know how every relationship has ups and downs. Regardless of the situation, sexual abuse is never acceptable, nor is any other kind of abusive behavior.
Remember, conversations about sex, sexuality, and sexual assault are the beginning of what is hopefully ongoing communication between you and your teen. It might be awkward at first, but be patient and keep trying. Even if it doesn’t feel like you're getting to where you want to be, you are making an impact just by modeling healthy communication in your own life.