A lot of parents ask me how and when to talk with their daughters about sex, dating, and relationships. For many, it is new and uncomfortable territory. Out of fear, some parents set strict boundaries and rules (which are usually broken.) Others learn how to create an environment where their daughters can define their relationship values, learn how to be assertive and make choices that are empowering rather than defeating, explore their sexuality, and deepen their understanding of a healthy relationship. With the right guidance, teens will connect with their moral compass and use their values to guide their decisions.
Key practices for parents
Listen. When talking about sex, dating, and relationships try to step back and listen from your daughter’s point of view. Ask yourself, “What’s it like for her?” Without overdoing it, be curious and ask open-ended questions like What do you think… and What if… These will provoke contemplation and create a space for her to process her experiences and develop her own perspective. You also gain insight into her romantic world. With this insight, you can further guide her.
Stay neutral. Although your skin may crawl when your daughter speaks frankly about sex and dating, try to stay calm. Overly emotional reactions are likely to trigger your teen to be more emotional and confused. She is also likely to avoid these important conversations and turn to her peers or media for guidance. However, if you are calm and poised, your teen is more likely to stay in the conversation and feel supported and heard.
Talk about pressure and consent. It’s likely that your teen has been asked to share inappropriate pictures and has given serious consideration to the idea. Many teen girls think, if everyone else is doing it, it must be OK. Teens are not thinking about the consequences of these choices so it is your job to trigger that thinking. You can talk about the reality of digital pressure and help your teen recognize that this behavior has the potential for dire consequences. She might roll her eyes or walk away in embarrassment but by talking about it, you will send a powerful message that although she may be in a minority when she does not give in to digital pressure, she is not acting recklessly; she is acting wisely.
In addition to provocative pictures, your daughter is also likely to experience pressure to have sex. Your daughter likely knows about contraception and the risks of pregnancy and disease, but she is unlikely to know about the importance of consent and the emotional consequences of bringing sex into a relationship. It’s critical to openly talk about how sex changes relationships, intensifies feelings, and shifts expectations. Have calm conversations about these implications and what she can do when she feels pressure. Be explicit about the role of consent. Talk frankly about sexual assault and reassure her that it is OK to come to you or tell an adult.
Keep the conversation going. Conversations about sex, dating, and relationships are not one-and-done. As your teen evolves so will her values and ideals about romantic relationships. Pay attention to these shifts and maintain an open-door policy to her questions.
Use television shows, movies, songs, and social media as springboards into meaningful conversations. You can ask your daughter what she thinks of how the media portrays sex, relationships, and love. Point out conflicting messages. Help her make sense of and see the truth in the constant messages she receives from her screen.
Infuse the topic of values into your conversations. Your daughter is developing relationship values and once they form, they become her anchor and inform her decisions. Be curious about her values and share your own.
As you explore values, talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Healthy relationships include the qualities of respect, trust, safety, honesty, and clear communication. Introduce these concepts to your teen and ask her what she thinks. Be interested and affirming. If she says something that concerns you, instead of telling her she is wrong, help her dig into a misguided belief. Say “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me more.” Recognize that her understanding of a healthy relationship is forming and she will need experiences to affirm what she believes. View all of her dating experiences as opportunities for her to learn and grow.
When it comes to sex, dating and relationships, girls need supportive adults with whom they feel safe, to help them navigate the maze of mixed messages, intense feelings, and confusing expectations. When parents approach this delicate topic with ease, honesty, and empathy, they create an environment where their daughters can discover what is important to them in a romantic relationship and how to stand strong in today’s sexualized, dating landscape.