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Home / Articles / Ask Amanda / Ask Amanda: Talking to Your Teen About Dating and Sex

Ask Amanda: Talking to Your Teen About Dating and Sex

It’s time to talk to your teen about what a safe relationship looks like

  • By
  • May 09, 2024
Ask Amanda: Talking to Your Teen About Dating and Sex

Q: Do you have any tips for important things to cover when talking to my teenagers about dating? My partner and I told them they’re allowed to date after 16. We covered the sex talk and taught them about mutual respect, but I’m not sure what else to touch on that might keep them from dating someone who mistreats or abuses them. – Anxiety-Ridden Parents of Teens 

A: I do have tips and I’m so glad you asked! Parenting teens can be some of the most challenging years—or so I’ve been kindly warned from good friends who are in the thick of parenting teens. Right now, I’m navigating parenting a 10-year-old daughter who sometimes emulates a teen, which I feel is pretty similar. (But she still thinks boys are “weird” so I have that going for me.) So I applaud you for not shying away from this sometimes-difficult-to-broach topic. There is actually a lot to cover with teens, so it may bode well to have regular talks with them from time to time. Let these talks happen organically—when you're in the car with nothing else to do is a great time to chat. 

All families will have slightly different rules when it comes to teens and dating, and that’s OK. You have to do what’s best for your peace of mind. Overall, many experts agree that 16 is a good minimum age to allow teens to begin going on dates. Dating can teach social and relational skills, help teens build self-esteem and also help them to grow emotionally. 

It should be noted you can find just as many reports that say delaying dating until after high school lessens a teenager’s risk of depression and may also result in better social skills. I think it comes down to listening to your gut and determining what is right for your individual child. 

You’re absolutely on the right track having the sex talk with your kids. Some parents assume that their teens are getting all the sex education they need from either school, their peers or the internet. But it’s best to open the lines of communication with your teen early to let them know this isn’t a topic that’s off limits or embarrassing to discuss. Would you rather they go to their friends with questions about sex or you? Which one is more likely to provide accurate information? 

Whether or not we accept, as parents, that our teens may very well have sex, it won’t stop them from going down that road. And if we do, we want to make sure everything is fully consensual. In “Teaching Kids About Sex in a Porn-Saturated Culture,” health educator and author Shafia Zaloom says many teens turn to porn to try and learn about sex, and that’s like learning how to drive by watching Fast & Furious movies. Zaloom says the majority of free, accessible porn is “misogyny veiled in exaggerated response.” In other words, men are often domineering and controlling without their partner’s consent.

Zaloom says instead of rooting conversations with kids in what sex isn’t, root them in what sex can be. “Healthy sexuality is a balance of responsibility and pleasure grounded in mutual respect,” she says. Porn doesn’t show consent, and we need to have the consent talk. Every step of intimacy should be mutually agreed upon, and young people should be aware that they can rescind that consent at any time

On that note, the other big talk is about boundaries and consent, a lesson that should be repeated regularly starting when kids are as young as toddlers. It’s OK if you’re reading this and you think, I’ve never talked about boundaries and consent and my kids are 16. It’s a better-late-than-never talk to have. 

Boundaries protect us and our bodies, and each individual has the right to set their boundaries as they see fit. Boundaries can be physical (“I don’t want you to touch my body,”), emotional (“I don’t feel comfortable sharing that with you,”) or sexual (“I’m not comfortable going any further than kissing right now.”). It’s as important to teach teens about setting boundaries as it is to teach them about respecting boundaries, both from a potential dating partner or a friend. 

An important part of honoring one’s boundaries is asking and receiving consent. Consent should be asked for and given at all parts of a relationship. Asking, “Is this OK?” might feel awkward at first, but the question will make a dating partner feel safe whether their answer is yes or no. 

Consent can never be given when a person is impaired, such as by drugs or alcohol, or is asleep or unconscious. Consent to one act does not mean consent is given to future acts. 

It may be helpful to role play with your teens, as much as that suggestion could elicit an eye roll. Have them set a boundary as simple as, “I don’t want you to sit next to me today.” Then, sit next to them and have them practice what they would say as a response when their boundary is crossed. Confrontation can be hard for a lot of people. Especially for girls, for whom social norms expect that  they be polite under any circumstances, it’s important to reinforce that they’re allowed to be firm and even rude if one of their personal boundaries is crossed. 

Another thing you may want to touch on is the prevalence of choking during sex. It’s unfortunately a trend that’s growing in popularity among young adults. Technically known as strangulation, the act of putting one’s hands or a ligature (such as a piece of fabric) around someone’s neck or around one’s own neck (known as erotic asphyxiation or autoerotic asphyxiation respectively) is an extremely dangerous practice, even when consensual. In a recent poll of young people at a U.S. university, over 25 percent of women reported they had been choked during their most recent sexual encounter. It’s important young people know that having their oxygen or blood flow restricted for any period of time, even if they don’t lose consciousness or have any negative effects directly following, can lead to traumatic brain injury, stroke, cardiac arrest and possibly delayed death. This sounds scary, but experts warn that many teens are under the impression that it’s a mostly harmless act when it’s anything but. Additionally, when done nonconsensually, it’s a glaring red flag that could indicate abuse. 

On that note, you may want to touch on the red flags of dating abuse (an important, albeit heavy conversation). You can also start a conversation around green flags your teens can look for in a partner. After all, seeing as this is all pretty new stuff, they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. This checklist is a good place to start:

Safe Dating Green Flags 

 __ Trust. You feel like your partner is being open and honest with you and doesn’t keep secrets. This person trusts you to have friendships and family relationships without jealousy or suspicion.

__ Respect. Your partner respects your boundaries, listens to you when you say no to something, and doesn’t sulk, get angry or guilt-trip you as a result. Your partner respects your opinion on things even if it differs from theirs without degrading or putting you down.

__ Communication. You talk to your partner about your feelings without fear of judgment or backlash.

__ Dependability. You feel like you can rely on your partner to be there for you when you need them. They show up at the place they say they’re going to be at the time they said they’d be there.

__ Happiness. You feel happier after spending time with this person and not drained. This person raises instead of lowers your self-esteem.

__ Patience. Your partner lets things in the relationship evolve at a pace you’re comfortable with rather than rushing you to get serious quickly.

__ Space. Your partner allows for you to have personal space when needed without following you, calling or texting you relentlessly or making you feel guilty for doing something without them.

__ Kindness. Your partner is kind, even if you’re in a disagreement. Your partner shows remorse if they say something they regret. (Yes, there is a healthy way to argue.) Also, your partner is kind to others—your friends, family members, teachers, store clerks, people in the service industry, etc.

__ Honesty. You trust that your partner is being truthful. They speak honestly about their past, any previous relationships and own up to their part in past break-ups.

__ Growth. Your partner is willing to evolve the relationship and themselves as time goes on, changing and adapting as life changes occur (a move, graduation, etc.)

__ Comfortable Intimacy. You feel safe talking to your partner about your intimacy boundaries, things you like and don’t like, even if those things change over time. Your partner is comfortable talking about sexual safety and protection.

__ Equality. You feel like an equal to your partner. You feel like your roles in the relationship are not defined by your gender identity.

Good luck, parents. You’re doing a great job just by asking this question. 

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Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.