Leaving high school and heading out into the world is one of the biggest changes in life. Beyond the challenges of dealing with a new schedule, location, and workload, teens must also adapt to a new social life, requiring them to meet new people, make new friendships, and perhaps even forge romantic relationships. While the relationship between you and your teen will change during this time as well, you can still be a supportive and understanding resource as they navigate their new adult world. This includes, but is not limited to, their sexual relationships.
It’s important! As uncomfortable as it may be, a conversation about sexual relationships coming from a trusted adult is a great way to open the door for positive communication with your young adult, whether you’re starting fresh or reinforcing behavior you’ve addressed from a young age.
It’s also important because sexual violence affects young people more than other age groups. It’s a scary statistic and no one wants to believe their kid could be a victim – or an aggressor. But most assaults don’t happen the way you may think, involving some deranged stranger. In most cases the victim and the perpetrator know each other. And assault is more than the most extreme forms; it isn’t always rape. Assault can include any unwanted sexual touching.
“Have the conversation proactively, but try to bring it up naturally,” says Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard University focusing on human development and psychology. Weissbourd suggests using opportunities as they come up to spark discussions, such as a news paper article, lyric in a song, or scene in a movie.
Jonathan Kalin, the founder of Party with Consent, likes to use the movie “Superbad” in his trainings with students. The plot involves recent high school graduates who are on a quest to hook up with girls before they leave for college. In one scene, they discuss whether or not a girl is going to have sex with one of them. They decide that she is, because she has asked him to help buy alcohol for the party. They go on to talk about girls getting drunk at parties, sleeping with men, and then regretting it the next day. “We could be that mistake!” is the line where Kalin likes to make his point.
“It’s promoting this prompt that doing something that is sexual assault is not just something amongst guys we should be interested in, but we should be high-fiving each other and that should be the goal."
You could also use that movie, or a similar one, as an opportunity to start the conversation and highlight the seriousness of the subject that the movie has turned into comedy. Tricking, coercing, or taking advantage of an incapacitated person are all sexual assault. Psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner says she and her colleagues regularly hear stories of sexual coercion, which is when someone is “talked into” a sexual encounter when they initially didn’t want to. She says parents and kids should be aware that this happens more than people think, and often people don’t think of it as assault. It is. If you’d like more information on what coercion and consent looks like, this article from the University of Michigan has numerous examples.
It’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking about consent and relationships with your kids. If you feel more comfortable talking about sex without saying sex, you can do that too.
Rachel Hanebutt, co-founder of Confi.co – a sex-education resource made by, and for, young adults —says analogies can be a great way to approach sexual health in a less formal way. She says she’s even thought about making videos with her cat.
“If the cat doesn’t want you to pet it, you don’t pet it,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t know the definition of consent. They just don’t know how to apply it to their everyday lives.”
Hanebutt says we all have an instinct to know when we’re coercing someone. It’s applying that instinct to any scenario, like trying to pet a cat, which can help make the discussion easier and more effective.
There’s also a popular video produced in 2015 that uses a cup of tea as an analogy. You could watch it together, or send it to your teen to watch on their own.
While some analogies can make a complex issue seem overly simple, any opportunity to start the conversation is better than no conversation at all.
Talk about Respect & Responsibility
Similar to analogies, a great way to talk about consent is to talk more broadly about respect and responsibility. Ultimately, that’s what consent comes down to.
By the time teens are graduating from high school, they have 18+ years of messaging from media, friends, and the culture that deeply influences their viewpoints on relationships. Boys often get the signal that it’s “cool” to try to get a girl to go further, or like the “Superbad” example, “cool” to be the person a girl regrets sleeping with. As an adult in their lives, you have a unique opportunity to shape the way they combat these messages.
“Respect is more about making sure your partner is comfortable,” Weissbourd says. “It’s about their needs and desires, not just about how to get your own needs met without harming someone else.”
Justine Finn, founder and director of Relation-Shift, which creates curriculum for schools to address violence, says respect is simply treating all people like humans. Regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or how they behave, they’re all worthy of respect.
“If someone is banging their head against the wall,” Finn says. “That doesn’t give you the permission to saw off their leg.”
Meaning that even if someone makes poor choices, being respectful and responsible is still the right thing to do. An example Finn uses is being on a college campus where a student may be drunk at a party, falling down, and clearly not making good choices. Will your student be the person that steps in and makes sure the student gets home safely? Or will they film the person with their phone, or take advantage of them?
Ask “Dumb” Questions
Try sparking conversation by asking questions so that your kid is the one “teaching” you. Kalin says this is the difference between asking for your kid’s opinion and simply lecturing them, which allows for more discussion.
Going back to the “Superbad” example, you could ask “What do you think the girl wanted?” or “Do you think all guys would think that?” or “What would you think in that situation?”
Asking those types of questions can also help you frame a discussion around expectations. What one partner may define as consent could be different from how the other sees it. Weissbourd refers to this as “mis-signaling.” A 2016 survey of college students found that if a woman goes home from a party with a man, the man is more likely to think it’s a form of consent.
Ask your teen “If two people go home together after a party, does that mean they’ll hook up?” Weissbourd says you can be concrete in answering from your side; “A woman being drunk and going home with you doesn’t mean she’ll sleep with you, and just because she’s kissing you doesn’t mean she wants to go all the way.”
More important than what you say to your kids is listening to what they say. Asking if there’s someone they are interested in, or someone they are involved with, can be enough to start a conversation. Keep in mind not all kids will want to talk directly about their relationships, but those are good ways to test the water and gauge their comfort level. Watch their body language, are they making eye contact or looking around the room? Are they feeling comfortable? Ask about their hopes or worries about a relationship. If they’re feeling comfortable, they may even ask you for help. If they ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, offer to help them find it.
Weissbourd adds, “You can’t tell them what to do, I just think you’re going to be most successful if they don’t go underground and they think of you as a useful resource.”
Try, Try Again
If you maintain a strong relationship with your kids, they will often want to talk to you about anything they’re confused, excited, or concerned about. If you show you’re open to talking about this hard topic, too, that’s the most important takeaway.
“Even if they look like they are not listening, if they know that an adult in their life cares, that has an impact,” Finn reminds us. “Even if parents [mess] it up and they forget everything they wanted to say, they’ve already opened the door.”