Parents who avoid talking to their kids about dating and sex send a dangerous message by staying silent.
Today’s tech-savvy teens look elsewhere for information and advice when moms or dads signal they are uncomfortable or unprepared to field questions, experts say. And without guidance from a trusted adult, new realities — from racy text messages to online pornography — end up shaping the attitudes and expectations kids bring to their early dating experiences.
“Technology has totally and completely transformed the way that kids grow up now,” says Leia Joseph, a teacher and counselor at Annapolis Area Christian School. “Parents need to talk to their kids about healthy relationships. They need to talk about boundaries, and they need to start the conversation early.”
Offer information and encourage discussion
Sharing age-appropriate information about sex and sexuality helps keep kids safe and healthy. And when parents show they are available to talk — even when the subject matter may be uncomfortable — they pave the way for richer, values-laden conversations about dating and relationships, according to Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore-based sex education teacher and author who has worked with students and parents at several area schools.
“The fact is, you’re sending them off into a world they’ve not been in before,” Roffman says.
Parents should start by asking their child about his or her expectations. Roffman says excellent conversation-starters include:
- What does it mean to go out on a date?
- What does it mean to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?
- What expectations do you have for the way that person will treat you?
- What will you hold yourself accountable for?
Use your child’s responses to talk about the values — such as honesty, respect or trust — that you expect him or her to uphold in any and all sexual experiences, including first kisses, says Roffman, who wrote “Talk to Me First” and “Sex and Sensibility.”
“Those very early experiences can shape their behavior and relationships for years to come,” she says. “As parents, you absolutely want the opportunity to establish those values early on so they develop healthy attitudes that carry them through adolescence and beyond.”
Teens may say they want independence, but when it comes to dating and relationships, experts agree setting limits is important. Rules offer kids a sense of security and ultimately teach them how to set their own boundaries — an invaluable skill as they prepare to leave the nest, Roffman says.
Roffman and Joseph both suggest talking to children ahead of time about:
- The age they can begin to go on dates.
- The types of outings that will be allowed (i.e. group vs. one-on-one dates).
- Their responsibilities regarding curfews and phone check-ins.
- Their limits when it comes to sexual experiences, ranging from hand-holding to various forms of intercourse.
Just knowing rules are in place makes it easier for kids to steer clear of peer pressure, says Margo Speciale, an Annapolis mom with three teen daughters, ages 19, 18 and 15.
“My daughters all have curfews. They all need to check in by phone,” she says. “And they know they have to keep the location service on their phones turned on so we know where they are.”
Experts also encourage parents to talk to their children about setting and respecting sexual boundaries, whether in person or online. Most teen relationships start offline, but they often develop via social media and texting — where the lines between appropriate and inappropriate can blur, Joseph says.
Two ways parents can help? Set clear guidelines about what’s OK to share and know your child’s usernames and passwords, Joseph and Roffman say.
One in four teens have had to block or unfriend someone who was flirting in a way that made him or her feel uncomfortable, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study on teens, technology and romantic relationships. The same survey found that 23 percent of teens with dating experience had sent “flirty or sexy” pictures or videos to someone they were interested in.
“Let your kids know that if someone’s pressuring them — whether they’re asking for a photo or something that’s physical — that’s not healthy and that’s not loving,” says Heidi Griswold, community engagement coordinator with HopeWorks of Howard County, a nonprofit agency based in Columbia that addresses sexual, dating and domestic violence.
Talk about warning signs
Young love can quickly become all-encompassing, Griswold says, making it critically important that parents talk to their children about common warning signs of unhealthy relationships.
Negative dating experiences can and do happen. One in three adolescents in the US experiences physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner — far exceeding rates of other types of youth violence, according to loveisrespect, an initiative of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.
Experts say red flags include:
- Constant calls or texts.
- Controlling behavior, including isolation from friends and family.
- Use of physical force or threats of violence during arguments.
- Verbal put-downs or abuse.
- Use of force or high-pressure tactics to initiate intimate contact.
Healthy relationships shouldn’t interfere with a teen’s commitments to school or favorite activities. If parents notice abrupt changes in their teens, such as suddenly dropping or adding friends, it’s time to talk, Griswold notes.
“On TV and in the movies we see this idea that being in love and being in a relationship means that you have to spend 100 percent of your time with that person,” she says. “But learning how to be in a relationship includes learning how to take time for yourself. Teens sometimes need a little help deciding what’s healthy and what’s not, especially when they first begin dating.”
By Mary Stegmeir