By James J. Crist, Ph.D.
Sexual assault has been in the news frequently over the last year. Many college campuses are struggling with how to establish useful guidelines for their students, as seen with the recent shift from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” However, teens start learning about dating and ways of approaching others well before they leave home. Parents have a vital role to play in helping their teens learn respectful ways of interacting with others.
The Challenges of Adolescence
Adolescence is a time of experimentation, and most teens experience some confusion about how to conduct themselves in relationships while taking into account the wishes and feelings of others. It’s not just a matter of respect, but also of being able to communicate one’s wishes clearly to the other person and of being able to understand what someone else is telling you about what he or she wants. Further complicating matters is the fact that many teens have mixed feelings about what they feel comfortable with, making it harder for even well-meaning teens to navigate this area of their lives. Wanting to be liked and accepted can cause them to go along with physical contact they are not ready to have.
Some teens have more trouble with these issues. Those with ADHD might react impulsively, for example, hugging someone or initiating a kiss without thinking about the consequences. Teens with autism spectrum disorders can have great difficulty reading other people and typically struggle with understanding how others might react to their attempts to get close. They often need more direct instruction. Substance use adds another dimension; teens who are drunk or high often exhibit poor judgment and may do things they ordinarily would not do. They may not recall what happened the night before. Anxious and shy kids often have trouble saying no.
A Strong Parent-Teen Relationship Facilitates Communication
Your ability to help your teens with these issues will depend on the quality of your relationship with them. These are hard issues for them to talk about (and maybe for you, too). If you have worked to establish a close and supportive relationship with your teens, it’s more likely they will come to you with questions or be willing to listen to your suggestions. If you are overly harsh or disrespectful in how you talk with teens and how you punish them, they are not going to come to you when they need help or advice. That increases their risk of making poor decisions.
Modeling the setting of healthy boundaries is also important. While parents usually expect their kids to obey them and not question them, this is not realistic. Teens need to learn how to say no, and that often starts at home. If they are never allowed to disagree with you or challenge you, they may not learn how to be assertive. Your task is to teach them to do it respectfully.
Teaching empathy at a young age is another useful task. Kids who understand how others feel and value the importance of not hurting someone else’s feelings may be more likely to show consideration and respect in their intimate relationships later on. This requires parents to respond empathically to children’s feelings, as well as teaching them to respond similarly to those of others.
Ways to Help Teens Establish Healthy Boundaries
Here are some suggestions for talking with your teen about respecting others’ boundaries. Remember that asking for their opinions first, rather than telling them what you think they should do, makes it more likely that your discussion will be mutually respectful and productive.
- Ask your teen what his or her thoughts are on respecting others’ boundaries. For example, “How do you know if someone is comfortable with a hug or a kiss? Would you consider asking first, or would that feel awkward?”
- Help teens think through possible consequences of their actions. For example, ask, “What do you think might happen if you start becoming physically intimate with someone without making sure he or she is comfortable with it?” or, “How will you feel the next day if you go along with something you really don’t want?”
- Explore different ways of setting limits or boundaries with others. Again, lead with a question: “How do you think you would handle it if you were out with someone and you felt uncomfortable with what that person was doing with you (or trying to do)? How easy is it for you to say no? Would you worry about hurting the person’s feelings?”
- Watching movies or TV shows with your teen is another way to broach the subject. When relationship issues come up, ask your teen, “What did you think of how that character handled the situation? What might you have done?”
- Offer to role-play situations that might come up at parties or on dates. This may be especially helpful for kids who are shy and may have more trouble asserting themselves or setting limits with others.
Know the Laws of Consent
Make sure your teen is aware of the age of consent as well. This typically ranges from age 16 to 18 and varies from state to state. Trouble is more likely when there is an age difference. In most states, for example, if an 18-year-old has sexual contact with a 16-year-old, that can constitute statutory rape, even when both parties consent to the contact. The greater the age difference, the more hurtful it can be for the younger party. It’s also riskier from a legal perspective. Being charged can lead to being convicted as a sex offender, with potential jail time and negative implications for future job prospects. Teens typically don’t think that far ahead.
Finally, think of these issues as ongoing discussions with your teen. By letting your teen know that it’s always okay to come to you for help or advice, you strengthen your bond and improve the chances that he or she will grow up happy, healthy, and safe.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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