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Talking to your teen about relationships

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Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2008 12:00 am

The NEA Health Information Network states that while recent data shows that U.S. teen pregnancy rates are falling, the United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births in the western industrialized world. This fact is reflected in the 35 percent rate of young women becoming pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, which translates to about 850,000 pregnancies a year.

Additional data from the network reports that teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and only 1.5 percent have a college degree by age 30.

Parents play a crucial role in educating and influencing teens, so there is much that they and other adults can do to reduce the risk of teens becoming pregnant.

In their conversations with young people about sex, pregnancy and family formation, parents frequently leave out one of the most important topics of all — healthy relationships. Instead, they focus mostly on the biology and other textbook-type information on preventing pregnancy and STDs. Research shows that early understanding of what makes a healthy relationship impacts a young person’s decisions about sex. Simply put, teens need to hear that a relationship is not all about sex.

Also, lessons teens learn from their relationships during adolescence will be the foundation of the relationships they form as adults.

The following are some helpful hints from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, for parents within the conversations they have with their teens.

• You matter more than you know. Despite the existing influence from peers and popular culture, teens report that parents have the most influence on their decision about dating and relationships.

• Action speaks louder than words. If the relationship you have with your spouse or partner is one that is respectful, rich in communication and filled with trust and love, your sons and daughters will notice.

• Who’s in charge? Remind young people that they are in charge of their own life. Tell them not to let anyone pressure them into being in a relationship until they are absolutely sure they are ready. And remind them that they can always change their minds if they make a choice and realize later that they regret it. In other words, saying “yes” once doesn’t mean you can’t say “no” later.

• Am I ready for a relationship? Teach your teens about being friends first, then dating/relationship later if at all. If your child is thinking about turning a friendship into a dating relationship, have them ask themselves the following questions:

— Do you respect each other?

— Are you honest with each other?

— Do you communicate well with each other?

— Do you have friends in common?

— Do your trusted friends like and trust this person?

— Do you have shared interests?

• Am I in love? Many parents make the mistake of dismissing their son’s/daugther’s feelings of being in love. This action will most likely put the teen on the defensive. It is more effective for parents to listen, then help the young person to understand and sort out their many thoughts and feelings about the matter. Help your teen answer these questions:

— Is the attraction just physical or something more than that?  

— Does he/ she accept you as you are?

— Is he/she supportive of my interests and the things that are important to me?

— Do you feel that the relationship is balanced or that one person is doing all the giving and the other person is doing all the taking?

— Is the emphasis on us more than me?

— Are you confident that you can stand up for your own values and beliefs, even if your partner disagrees?

• The older partner thing. Caution your teens about being in relationships with older partners. The power differences among teens and those even three years older often can lead into risky and unforeseen situations, like unwanted sex.

• How to deal with pressure. Lots of teens say that they feel pressure in their relationships to have sex. In fact, many think that having sex is the price of entry for a relationship or the thing that will keep a relationship together. Your advice should be direct: If sex is the price of a relationship, find someone else.

• Remember, it’s not just what’s safe, it’s what’s right. In additon to being worried about the physical consequences of sex (pregnancy and STDs), tell your teen to be of their heart. Six in 10 sexually experienced teens say they wish they had waited until they were older to have sex. Also reiterate to them that just because they’ve said “yes” before, doesn’t mean they can’t say “no” now.

• Let them know that you are on call 24/7. Teens really do want to hear from their parents about relationships, even if they do not always act like it. And it’s never too late (or too early) to start these conversations. Remember to have conversations with your kids, not lectures. This means to listen and address their concerns and questions with respect and sensitivity in addition to imparting your knowledge and advice.

• Tram Vuong Meadows is the Therapeutic Foster Home Program Therapist for Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i. She can be reached at tmeadows@haleopio.org, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu’e, 96766. A support group of adults in our Kaua‘i community have “stepped into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families. Please e-mail your questions and concerns facing our youth and families today to Mary Navarro, executive director of Hale ‘Opio, at mnavarro@haleopio.org

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