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Throughout pregnancy, infancy, and even through the toddler years, I diligently read to prepare myself for the various ages and stages that were to come but those years were easy compared to now! As a parent of an 11 and 13 year old, my kids have transformed from children to young adults before my eyes. These days we’re having conversations about the changes to your body that come with puberty and hormones, underage drinking, and healthy relationships.
Even though both of my kids insist there’s no one they like, I would be naïve to think that I can wait until they bring home their first boyfriend or girlfriend to talk about what it means to be in a relationship. It’s important for kids to know what a healthy vs unhealthy relationship looks like, how to know you’re in love, and about consent even before there’s a chance of having sex. At a time when hormones are raging, we want our kids to fall in love with people who respect and cherish them for who they are but it isn’t ok to assume that they already know these things.
If thinking about those topics made you cringe or feel thankful that your kids are too young, they’re growing up fast. This conversation might happen when you least expect it so it’s important to think about these topics now so you’re ready to tackle them at a moment’s notice. It’s not always easy to have relationship conversations without alienating your kids or losing their trust but here’s how to talk about healthy relationships with tweens and teens and gain their confidence so they will listen.
How to Talk About Healthy Relationships with Tweens and Teens
Even though it may seem that our independent tweens and teens don’t need us anymore, they do. In fact, according to the New York Times (NYT), teenagers wish their parents were around more often. What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents provides some great strategies for parents to connect with their adolescents by just being present. The NYT says it’s important to be around but blend into the background because, “quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.” According to the NYT, being available without advancing an agenda may not make the best family time but “sharing the same space sets the stage for the possibility of actively interacting” with our tweens and teens.
Be Quiet and Listen
One of the best ways to start a conversation is to listen and use what my kids are telling me about others. In her first year of middle school, Emily came home from a field trip to Baltimore that involved getting lunch at the Inner Harbor. Over 200 6th graders were turned loose with money and instructions of when and where to meet the bus and while many bought lunch and visited the stores lining the water, one pair of students coupled off and had some very public forms of PDA in front of their classmates.
“Mom,” Emily said in an exasperated teenage way, “it was gross.”
“What was gross?” I asked.
“All of it,” she replied. “The holding hands and kissing in public. And you know they’re dating, right?”
“What does dating mean in 6th grade?” I wondered aloud, asking a very deliberate open ended question in a casual sort of way.
“I don’t know,” she said very matter of factly. “Maybe they hang out and go to the movies. Some kids kiss in the halls.”
What started out as a summary of the day’s field trip resulted in me getting my daughter’s perspective of what dating and relationships look like in 6th grade. The key is trying to keep it casual and listening as much as possible but being strategic about your role the conversation. It’s always good to try to ask open ended questions that will prompt your tween or teen to reveal more than they usually would with a yes or no answer.
Seize Teachable Moments
When you listen, opportunities for teachable moments come from the things your kids are saying but also from the environment around you. My friend, Lisa, taught her son about AIDS when he was 6 because a story about it came on NPR as they were driving in the car.
I’ve had my own share of teachable moments like talking to 9 year old Emily about underage drinking at a baseball game but earlier this year, I went from asking Thomas how his first day of family life was to a conversation about rape in less than an hour.
How does one go from hormones and puberty to discussing rape?
It’s not hard when you happen to be getting haircut after school and happen to leave just as the news is talking about a student being raped by other students at a local high school. I knew that Thomas had heard the news story so decided to use it as a springboard for a conversation. I started simply, asking if he had heard the news story, knew what sex was, and if he knew what rape was. His answers were yes-no-no. He had heard the story but didn’t know what sex or rape were. I gave him a quick lesson on sex and in a very matter of fact way, I told him rape is forcing someone to have sex without their consent.
In addition to the teachable moments that come from current events, they also come from real life moments like your child commenting on a friend, personal experiences of love and heartbreak, and all the other life experiences that
Use Current Movies to Spark Conversations
While it might be rare to go to the movies with your teen, it’s important to keep up with what they’re watching in the theaters. Common Sense Media provides parents with unbiased movie reviews that provide a great summary of the movie’s plot along with their suggestion for a minimum viewing age based on developmental appropriateness, what you need to know at a glance, and a section called “Families Can Talk About” that features three questions that will get kids talking.
Once recent movie that Emily I saw was Everything, Everything. Not only was it a fabulous example of a healthy loving relationship between two tweens that we hope our own kids will have some day but it helped continue the conversation about consent and sex.
Conversations we’re having with our kids about healthy relationships aren’t one and dones. We can’t talk about the topics once and check that off the list. As our kids grow up from having crushes to first loves, heartbreaks, and beyond, the conversation changes and it’s important that we circle back and tie in messages from the things they’re interested in to make the lessons more relevant.
Find Resources for Your Family
The ultimate goal is to focus on how to help your kids develop healthy relationships and because we shouldn’t be doing all the talking about these topics (we know our tweens and teens tune out and stop listening to us!), it’s important to find trusted resources with materials kids will pay attention to. This helps reinforce the positive messages you want them to learn about healthy relationships.
For example, if your adolescent saw Everything, Everything in the theater, you can use it to start a conversation with Maddy and Olly as examples of a healthy relationship and then direct your teen to Amaze.org’s resources on healthy relationships and these 4 videos that correspond to themes in the movie.
Even though many of the videos are animated, the content isn’t for younger kids. They’re done in a way that tweens and teens can relate to thanks to important information presented in a smart way.
Another great resource are fellow parents. In real life friends, friends you keep in touch with via Facebook, and other parenting bloggers can be great sources of support when you talk about healthy relationships with tweens and teens.
To read advice from other parents who have written about talking to kids about consent, sex, and healthy relationships, visit these posts:
- Sex Education from a Mom’s Perspective by Lisa from Mom on the Side
- Awkward Isn’t an Excuse for Giving Up by Amanda Magee
- Making the Hard Conversations Easier by Tandra Wilkerson from Thriller Mom
- Single moms, you are your child’s most important sex educator (deep breaths) by Jessica Ashley from Single Mom Nation
- Healthy Relationships Have Never Been My Thing, But I Want Them to Be Hers by Leah Campbell
- From Awkward to AMAZEing Conversations by Cristie Ritz-King from Reinvention Girl
AMAZE.org produces engaging sex education videos for 10-14 year olds that cover the “mechanics” (e.g., puberty) and also more complex topics (relationships, gender identity, consent, etc.) to help adolescents realize sexuality is a natural, healthy part of being human. Since AMAZE is all about more info, less weird, their goal is to empower parents to be the primary sexuality educators of their kids through videos that inform and spark a conversation. This incredible resource for families is a collaboration between 3 expert organizations in the field of sex education: Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Youth Tech Health and helps us figure out how to talk about healthy relationships with tweens and teens without alienating them or losing our their trust.
For more information, visit the AMAZE.org website and like the @AMAZEparents Facebook page that features video shares as well as fantastic curated content related to sex ed, health, etc. You can also follow AMAZE.org on Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat and using the hashtag #MoreInfoLessWeird.
This post was produced with support from AMAZE.org but all opinions are my own.