Providing a safe space for your teen to ask questions can help equip them for healthy relationships in the future. Expert Rachel Harrison shares her advice.
You've been guiding your child through each milestone in their lives – how to ride a bike, bake a cake or dusting off their knee after a scrape. As they enter their teens, it can feel harder to help guide them in the same way. But when you show them you're there to talk – and to just listen – it can make a huge difference. Making home a safe space can make it easier for them to come to you for help if they need it. Providing teens with accurate information about sex has also been shown to delay sexual activity and make teens more likely to use safe practices when they're ready for sex.
Feeling comfortable asking questions is a big part of learning. Our Mates and Dates facilitators – who deliver healthy relationships education – find that teenagers usually have a lot of questions. Mates and Dates, funded by ACC, allows secondary school students to freely discuss things they've been wondering about when it comes to sex, identity, friendships, or whānau. It's a no-judgement environment that aims to give young people the skills and knowledge to prevent harm caused by sexual and dating violence. And these are skills that will stay with them for life.
What do teens want to know about sex and relationships?
The Mates and Dates course offers an anonymous question box where students can post anything they're too shy to ask in class or would otherwise feel unable to talk about out loud. There's no shortage of questions, and they usually fall into one of seven categories:
- Information and fact seeking. (Is there a legal age when someone can consent to sex? Is sex supposed to feel good?)
- Is my body normal, are my thoughts and behaviours normal? (Is it normal to touch yourself? Is it okay that I don't feel like having a relationship even though all my friends have boyfriends/girlfriends?)
- Permission seeking. (What if I don't identify with any gender label? Is that OK? Do you have to do anal?)
- Values-based. (Do I have to wait until I'm married to have sex?)
- Eliciting personal information from facilitators. (Have you done oral sex? Do you do this job because someone raped you?)
- Help-seeking. (What do you do if you know someone is being abused?)
- Advice seeking. (What is the best line for picking up chicks? How do I know if someone likes me?)
That's a lot of different questions going through teens' minds. But there's plenty of ways you can help.
What can you say or do to make a difference?
As a parent or caregiver, you can help your teen stay informed by showing them you're OK talking about sex and relationships. Talk about it regularly but keep it brief and to the point. Short, regular chats are better than a long one-off talk. Let them know they can ask you anything and you won't get mad at them.
Make sure teens have good quality sex education so they aren't relying on pornography to learn about sex. It's important to remind young people that pornography is very different to sex in real life. It often doesn't show the key ingredients of a healthy sex life, such as consent. Ask teens what they think about the relationships they see around them, in real life and on TV. Try asking things like 'do you think both people are totally into that? Does that look like consent to you?'. Listen carefully to them and value what they say.
When answering questions, you can:
- normalise asking questions by letting them know that the questions they're asking are common. Affirm that it's good to ask questions
- acknowledge they might be feeling awkward. You could say, 'we all get embarrassed sometimes, but it's good to talk about this'
- talk about consent regularly and in a positive way. A lot of teens say they grew up being told if you don't get consent, you'll end up in jail. Explain to your teen that it's more than just following rules. Consent helps to create mutual pleasure. Everyone involved should be enjoying themselves. Consent is important every time, for everything you try
- try not to assume anything about your teen or their friends. They may not always be going out with someone of the opposite sex, or they may not want to be referred to by 'she' or 'he'. Even if the relationships are different to what you're used to, try to remain interested and respectful
- be honest and answer questions as they come up. Treat questions seriously and respectfully. If you don't know the answer, thank them for coming to you and let them know you'll come back to them
- be positive, calm and unshakeable when talking about sex and relationships. They're probably looking at your reaction. If they think you can't cope with it, they won't ask you next time
- keep a sense of humour and don't try to be cool! You don't need to use the latest slang or know about Tik Tok, but you can be a supportive and approachable parent.
What it all comes back to
Remind your teen that their feelings are valid and saying no doesn't make them a bad person. Communicating what they want and listening and respecting what their partner wants are both crucial. It all comes back to a balanced, healthy relationship.
It's also important to acknowledge that, while you're there to talk anytime, there will be times they don't want to talk to you. Let them know you're there, but if there's something they want to talk about with someone else, there are other trusted adults they can talk to. You could suggest some of the helplines listed below, or a school counsellor or doctor.
Encourage teens to keep asking questions. The more we have upfront, no-nonsense conversations, the more we can help them understand the core elements of a healthy relationship – consent, equality, and respect.
Rachel Harrison has worked in domestic and sexual violence prevention and response for more than 20 years. She's currently a Mates and Dates facilitator, in addition to supporting organisations to reduce sexual harassment and create healthy cultures. Rachel is also a mother to a 17-year-old daughter.
Where to get help
Phone 0800 376 633
Safe to talk Kōrero mai ka ora is a sexual harm helpline that is free, confidential, and 24/7.
Just the Facts is a New Zealand-based sexual health website.
Rainbow Youth works with queer and gender diverse youth, as well as their wider communities.
Villainesse: The real sex talk is a 12-part web series that educates teenagers about sex.