It’s a fact: Most teens/preteens are going to experiment with relationships and sexuality at some point soon. So rather than putting off “the talk” out of dread, or letting your child learn everything from media and their friends, it’s important to be proactive and open up the lines of communication early.
Consent, healthy relationships, setting boundaries, and communicating with a romantic partner are very tough subjects to tackle. But your teen needs to know about them—and needs to know that they can talk to you. Remember that dating and early relationships are an important stage in your child’s development, and you want to be there for them!
Note that this info is absolutely crucial for kids of *ANY* gender. Plus, do your best to deliver it in a way that doesn’t assume your child’s sexuality or the gender they’d potentially be interested in dating (even if they’ve already started dating).
Even though early relationships may seem like inconsequential “puppy love” from an adult perspective, these relationships are very important to your teen and can help lay the groundwork for healthy adult relationships. So be sure to respect, listen to, and take your teen seriously! Here are some of the main points you should cover with them.
Know your own worth
Make sure your kid is getting these messages on a regular basis:
- You don’t need to be “liked” or to be in a romantic relationship to feel worthy or special.
- You don’t need anyone to complete you. You already have so many amazing qualities inside and out.
- You always deserve to be treated with respect and to be listened to.
- You have valuable instincts and no one should ever tell you how to feel.
- Remember that your interests, activities, and friendships are still important and valuable after you enter a romantic relationship with someone—and after that relationship ends too.
Signs of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships
Point out a few of these signs and ask your child what they think another sign or example of a healthy or unhealthy relationship would be.
In healthy relationships, the partners:
- Communicate their wishes and feelings
- Speak and act respectfully toward each other
- Let each other spend time with other people
- Ask for consent and check in with each other
- Make mutual decisions, regardless of who has more money/social influence/etc.
In unhealthy or abusive relationships, one or more of the partners may:
- Not communicate their wishes and feelings
- Not listen, compromise, or admit when they’ve made a mistake
- Speak or act disrespectfully
- Hurt or intimidate their partner physically or emotionally, or even virtually
- Lie to, or distrust, their partner
- Try to control who else their partner spends time with
- Pressure their partner into doing things they’re uncomfortable with
- Take/give up control based on who has more money/social influence/etc.
Consent, consent, consent
Have the sex talk, and be sure they understand that consent is a must for any kind of sexual activity, even kissing. Explain that a simple question (“Is this okay?” or “Is it okay if I __?”) followed by a clear “yes” response makes sure that both of you are starting on the same page. If it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a “no” for now. Also, it’s okay for either person to change their mind at any point.
Consent is not *only* for sexual activity, though. It starts with the little things. Here are some examples of ways teens can ask for, give, or discuss consent with partners:
- “I’m okay with kissing, but not when we’re in front of other people.”
- “I’m cool with displaying our relationship on social media, but please run it by me first before sharing pictures.”
- “Are you comfortable with me introducing you as my girlfriend at this party?”
- “I don’t know if I’m ready for that. We can keep talking about it, though.”
- “I think it’s romantic to check in with each other whenever one of us wants to try something new.”
Practice what to say
Let your teen know that close relationships can come with difficult conversations. If they need to confront an issue with someone they are dating, they can practice what to say first—and offer yourself as a sounding board. Here are some examples to help get them thinking about what to say:
- “I didn’t feel respected when you said that in front of your friends.”
- “Can you please ask me first next time?”
- “I love the time we spend together, but I also need a little more time to spend with other friends and my family.”
- “This is important to me. I want to know what’s important to you too.”
- “Should we talk about how we could do this better next time?”
Of course some issues can be discussed and improved in a relationship, but at other times there may be a dealbreaker or a red flag of abuse. Discuss with your teen when they shouldn’t feel the need to “work it out” or “try again.” Have them come up with a list of what’s NEVER acceptable in a relationship. For example:
- Physical harm or threats (including hitting, kicking, pinching, biting, choking, pushing, or intimidation with weapons)
- Violation of consent, from sharing private texts with others to not respecting a “no”
- Racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise disrespectful language or actions
- Deliberate lying or cheating
- Not treating you with respect in either public or private settings
Set family rules
If there are any rules and expectations you have around your teen dating, now is the time to make them clear. You may want to set a curfew, have rules about being together behind closed doors or while you’re not home, want to follow certain cultural guidelines about dating, or have expectations about where the money for dates is coming from.
Make it a two-way discussion so that your teen can share their perspectives and so that they fully understand the reasoning behind each rule. The more you ask open-minded questions and really listen to their ideas, the less likely they will be to try to hide their actions from you.
Re-state your unconditional love
Tell your teen, straight up, that you love them no matter what. Make sure they know that you’ll be there to support them even if they make mistakes, even if they’re having a hard time with a relationship or a breakup, even if they get into a bad situation.
You want to be someone they’ll turn to in good and bad times. So even if you’re not thrilled about your teen’s choices in romance or sexual activity, or how they’re expressing it on social media, try to withhold your judgment (which is most likely about *you*) and instead be there for genuine support (which is focused on *them*). Keeping these lines of honest communication open will help ensure your child stays safe, and develops the skills and values that will lead to healthy relationships throughout their lives.
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