By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health
“We as a society are failing to prepare young people
for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life
– learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships”
(Weissbourd, Anderson, Cashin, & McIntyre, 2017)
A recent long-term Harvard study, Making Caring Common, about teens and sexuality has some important messages in it for parents. The main finding? Parents are failing their young adults in one critical area; talking to them about how to have a healthy relationship. Even more interesting, was the number of young adults who indicated they wanted to have these conversations with their parents. Who knew?
The very well-laid out report provides several key findings.
Part three: What’s love got to do with it? Well, everything, actually.
Research shows that rates of sexual assault among young people are high. But our research suggests that a majority of parents and educators aren’t discussing with young people basic issues related to consent.
High numbers of the survey respondents said they had never talked to their parents about how to know when a partner wants to have sex and how to ensure their own comfort before sex. A teen girl once shared with me that the boys in her grade were really scared to have sex with a girl because of the fear that they wouldn’t know she really wanted it and would be accused of rape. This seemed to me one of the sadder moments of considering teen sexuality. What are we teaching kids about sex if they don’t know if someone else is enjoying it? What if they don’t know how to know if THEY are enjoying it? There is some pretty strong messaging out there that tells girls how NOT to have sex, but so much less about how to go about ensuring that the experience is pleasurable. I heard a great comment the other day about a teacher known for pointing out the obvious in our messages to young people “Sex is dirty and forbidden; so save it for somebody special!” Think about that for a minute.
We also do a disservice to sex in the context of love – both requiring it, but not teaching it. Wait until you are married, wait until you are with that special someone, sex without love is (insert whatever messages you received here). You know what I’m talking about, because you have your own narratives about what it means to be in love, and you got them from social norms, rom-coms and your parents. What did you learn about love and sex from your own upbringing? What are your children learning about love from you?
Here are two useful resources on talking to kids about consent and having good sex:
And this is perhaps where some parents may struggle, especially if they don’t think they have figured it out themselves. Parents who have been divorced or are currently struggling in their relationships may feel they have nothing to offer their child(ren). But failure is where much of wisdom resides. We’ve all learned something from relationships that didn’t work and it’s ok to model that it’s better to be alone than in the wrong kind of relationship. It’s also good to model that hearts can and do change, because teens see this all the time. These early relationships often don’t last and it’s the perfect opportunity to talk about what can be taken away from those experiences. “What did you like about being in a relationship with X? What didn’t you like? What do you think went wrong? Is it fixable?” Because some things aren’t, and it’s important to teach our children that moving on isn’t failure, it’s sometimes wise and good examples of self-care and love. And it’s important that time spent in a relationship that doesn’t last isn’t wasted. As the Eagles said it so poignantly:
So you can get on with your search, baby
And I can get on with mine
And maybe someday we will find
That it wasn’t really wasted time.
It’s important for our children to understand that who, what and how we love often changes over time; it’s a natural part of personal growth and development. As Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is so often quoted as saying, “… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
Which brings me to a very real limitation of this study, in that it continues to only address a single heterosexual narrative. In these progressive times, we know that just isn’t sufficient to help our teens navigate their very real and dynamic worlds of sexuality and exploration. We want our children to have choices, to decide how and whom they choose to love, and for how long.
The late Stephen Covey insisted that “love is a verb”, which means it’s an action – something you must do in order to experience it. Perhaps the most loving thing we may do for our children, is to teach them how to love well and receive good love in return. As the Stars sing:
And the only way to last, and the only way to live it
Is to hold on when you get love, And let go when you give it.
The full report can be found here and is worth every minute of your time.
Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family and community – let’s work together!