In our conversations with young people about sex, pregnancy, and family formation — aka, the dreaded "Talk" — we parents too often leave out one of the most important topics of all: healthy relationships. Simply put, young people often get the textbook definitions on how to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STDs — by waiting to have sex or by using contraception — but they're rarely given guidance on how to successfully navigate the minefield of relationships. Remember that the lessons they learn from their relationships as teenagers will be the foundation of the relationships they form as adults.
Here are some suggestions we think might be helpful in conversations you should have with your sons and daughters.
1First and foremost — you matter more than you know.
2Remember, it matters what you do, not just what you say.
3The success sequence.
4Who's in charge?
5Am I ready for a relationship?
6Am I in love?
7The older partner thing.
8How to deal with pressure.
9Be respectful and talk honestly about relationships.
10Remember, it's not just what's safe, it's what's right.
11Let them know that you are on call 24/7.
First and foremost — you matter more than you know.
Teens — your sons as well as your daughters — say that parents most influence their decisions about dating and relationships. Despite what you may think, your influence has not been lost to peers and popular culture.
Remember, it matters what you do, not just what you say.
Actions speak louder than words. If the relationship you have with your spouse or partner is one that is respectful, rich in communication, and filled with trust and love, your sons and daughters will notice.
The success sequence.
Research makes clear that young people who finish high school (or, better still, get a college degree); wait until their twenties to marry; and have children after they marry are much more likely to achieve their life goals than those who do not follow this sequence. Teach your children about this "success sequence" and make clear to them that education is a priority in your home. Consider this example: A child born to an unmarried teen mother who has not finished high school is nine times more likely to be poor than a child born to adult parents who is married and has graduated from high school.
Who's in charge?
Remind young people that they are in charge of their own life. Tell them not to let anyone pressure them into being in a relationship until they are absolutely sure they are ready. And remind them that they can always change their minds if they make a choice and realize later that they regret it. In other words, saying 'yes' once doesn't mean you cant say 'no' later.
Am I ready for a relationship?
When your teen meets someone new, the mantra should be: Friends first, dating and relationships later (if at all). Tell your sons and daughters that if they are friendly with someone and are considering moving up the relationship ladder, they should ask themselves these questions: Do you respect each other? Are you honest with each other? Do you communicate well with each other? Do you have friends in common? Do your trusted friends like and trust this person? Do you have shared interests? Answering these questions honestly can go a long way to helping young people decide whether their potential partner is relationship-worthy.
Am I in love?
A very common question from teens is: "How can I tell I'm in love?" Many parents make the mistake of hearing this question from their child and immediately responding with "you're too young to be in love!" (cue loud humming/fingers in the ears posture from mom and dad). The truth is, though, who's to say? The feelings your teen has are as real to them as yours are to you and aren't any less important. The key here is to help them understand what they're feeling and make good, responsible decisions. You have a wonderful opportunity to share your knowledge and guide your child — don't put them on the defensive by dismissing their feelings.
Instead, consider starting the conversation by asking your teen the questions noted in resource #5 and a few others: Is the attraction just physical or something more than that? Does he/ she accept you as you are? Is he/she supportive of your interests and the things that are important to you? Do you feel that the relationship is balanced or that one person is doing all the giving and the other person is doing all the taking? Is the emphasis on us more than me? Are you confident that you can stand up for your own values and beliefs, even if your partner disagrees?
The older partner thing.
Caution your teens about being in relationships with older partners. The power differences among teens and those even three years older often can lead to risky and unforeseen situations, like unwanted sex. Research has shown that, among 14-year-olds, 30% of girls and 73% of boys whose oldest “serious boyfriend or girlfriend” was two or more years older were sexually experienced, compared to 13% of girls and 29% of boys whose oldest partner was no more than one year older. That means that, although your freshman daughter is thrilled that a senior asked her out, it might be in her best interest if you put the brakes on things.
How to deal with pressure.
Lots of teens say that they feel pressure in their relationships to have sex. In fact, many think that having sex is the price of entry for a relationship or the thing that will keep a relationship together. As adults, we know that this is both untrue and, even worse, extremely unhealthy thinking. Your advice should be direct: If sex is the price of a relationship, find someone else.
Be respectful and talk honestly about relationships.
One of teens’ consistent gripes over the years is that parents don’t take teen relationships seriously. Over and over again teens have told us that they want parents to know that just because they are young doesn’t mean that they can’t fall in love. They want parents to know that the feelings they have are very real to them. Let them know that you hear them and that you are respectful of the feelings they have. At the same time, don’t be shy about telling them what you think and why you think the way you do. Remember though, it should be a conversation, not a lecture.
Remember, it's not just what's safe, it's what's right.
Teen relationships often involve sex. Help young people understand that in addition to the potential physical consequences of sex—you might get pregnant or contract an STD—they should carefully consider the potential emotional consequences of sexual activity. Be worried about pregnancy for sure, but also be mindful of your heart. Let your teen sons and daughters know that six in ten sexually experienced teens say they wish they had waited until they were older to have sex. Also reiterate to them that just because they've said ‘yes’ before, doesn’t mean they can’t say ‘no’ now.
Let them know that you are on call 24/7.
To circle back to where we started—teens really do want to hear from their parents about relationships, even if they do not always act like it. And it's never too late (or too early) to start these conversations - there are appropriate messages and conversation-starters for every age group. Make sure that your sons and daughters know that you are always there for them, that you always have a sympathetic ear, and that no topic is off-limits. Never underestimate the great need that children feel—at all ages—for close relationships with their parents and for their parents’ guidance, approval, and support. This may mean some extremely awkward or difficult conversations. It may mean resisting, with all of your willpower, the urge to cover your ears and pretend your child did not just ask you that question. But know that it’s just as awkward and difficult for them to broach the subject as it is for you to hear it. Address their concerns and questions with respect and sensitivity and, over time, both you and your teen will become comfortable having these conversations.
Want more information? Check out Kiss and Tell: What Teens Say About Love, Trust, and Other Relationship Stuff (2007) for a detailed look at what teens are thinking about sex, love, and relationships.
Funding for this project was provided by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Grant Number: 90-FE-0024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.