by Jennifer Gibson
Source: Island Parent Teens
Originally Published: Island Parent Teens
I always begin my parent education sessions by asking participants to reflect on their own experiences with sexuality and relationships as youth. Aside from a short break from the chaos of today’s world and a way to build connection through the sharing of funny stories, a trip down memory lane serves in supporting our youth. It reminds us that no matter how large the generation gap between us and our kids, we, too, have had many of the same feelings and experiences that our youth are having now. Reminding yourself of the many moments—the good, the not so good, and especially the awkward—that come along with young relationships grounds you in what you want your youth to know and experience.
Do you remember your first “more than friends” relationship? That feeling of being so into someone, you could think of little else. The heart racing, palm sweating, cheek flushing response at the mention of their name, the sound of their voice or the sight of them in the hallway? Can you remember the intensity, the adrenaline, the excitement? I’m sure you can. The newness, the fascination, and the feelings of connection make up some of the most influential relationship experiences of our lives.
As a sexual health educator who spends the majority of her days with youth between the ages of 13 to 25, facilitating and learning about all kinds of wild and wonderful things, I know our youth need direction from their parents/adult allies about relationships more now than they ever have. Yes, we definitely need to be talking about menstrual cups, IUDs, gender identity, orientation, chlamydia, and pornography. While all of these topics are important—you’re not off the hook!—our youth need conversations about quality, fun, and equal relationships.
Every day, the amazing youth I work with challenge me to answer tough and real questions. The toughest of those questions always revolve around relationships: “How do you know if your relationship is a good one?”…“How do you know if your partner wants the same things you do?”…“How do you know when you’re ready to take the relationship to the next level?” and “How do you tell someone that your feelings have changed without hurting them?”
For me, these are the questions that I struggle with the most to answer because they’re so personal, complex, and significant to their future. Relationship education is the real-life messy subject that often mystifies youth the most. They often lack experience and self-knowledge but they make up for this in curiosity and desire for these types of connections. Parents and close adult allies can be the best sources of relationship support and information because you know your youth so well and you can tailor information to their personalities and abilities, and connect it to your own family and cultural values. This is the information youth will be using as a foundation for the most important and influential experiences of their lives.
In our education sessions, parents often ask me for tips on how they should be talking to their kids about modern relationships. What should they be including and what should they be leaving out? Based on the most successful conversations I have with youth about relationships, here’s a summary of the basic yet essential healthy relationship ingredients to include in these conversations.
The nine ingredients are easily summarized by the slightly cheesy, but really effective acronyms: SHARE and CARE:
Both people feel physically and emotionally safe with each other. You’re comfortable to set and respect boundaries even if those may be different than their own and they work to support the safety the other needs.
Honesty in a relationship means you are able to be honest with yourself about your feelings, boundaries, and decisions and you’re able to be honest with your partner, your friends and your family about your relationship while still maintaining privacy.
Relationships aren’t passive experiences. People in relationships need to be aware of their actions and how they can impact the others inside and outside of the relationship and be considerate of the other person’s feelings and experiences.
You demonstrate respect for your partner’s boundaries, beliefs, values, sexuality, family rules and personal space and they do that in return. You are also respectful of yourself within the relationship.
Both partners share equal power in the relationship in terms of decision making, boundary setting, and commitment and you work together to manage the power within the relationship, especially in the not-so-easy moments.
Both partners develop a decision making process and communication style that works for their relationship. They create space to talk about boundaries and what they want, what feels good, and what doesn’t. There is no pressure to move beyond these boundaries.
When you’re in a healthy relationship, you accept yourself and feel accepted by your partner. Whatever differences you have, you’re able to talk about them and find a way to understand and accept them.
Both partners bring personal and shared responsibility to the relationship. This includes sharing responsibility for the happiness of the relationship.
You feel content in the relationship. You enjoy spending time with your partner but you can still manage and enjoy the other commitments in your life like your schoolwork, family, friends and other activities. Your personal feelings of happiness and identity are separate from your partners, not dependent on it.
In this era of anything but subtle messages about sexuality, unprecedented access to (mis)information, the lack of healthy relationship modeling, and daily disclosures of sexualized harm and violence, it is more important than ever to ensure that we invest our time and energy in relationship conversations. Youth can’t and shouldn’t be getting relationship education from Riverdale or anything else they’re binge watching on Netflix. They deserve to have fulfilling successful relationships and they crave the guidance to achieve this. We need to use our own experiences combined with these nine healthy relationship ingredients to guide them. We must ask teens what they think, what they want, and what they want to feel like when they’re in a relationship. Most importantly, we need listen to what they’re sharing with us and what they are asking us (especially when it’s “for a friend”). We must talk with them about our hopes for their relationships, our personal values, and family guidelines in the most comfortable and open ways possible. And the place to begin is with the little trip down memory lane which will inevitably bring you back to the future. DeLorean and Marty McFly not included.
Jennifer Gibson, MA, is also known as “The Sex Lady”— officially now for 15 years in Greater Victoria!—to the thousands of amazing youth and adults she is lucky to educate and learn with through her job as the Coordinator of Community Education at Island Sexual Health. She’s passionate about making sexuality education as positive, fun and non-cringe-able as possible.
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