The two months of school break can be heady days for teenagers – sleepover camps, beach parties, first jobs.
It can also be a risky time: Some sexual health clinics report a rise during holidays among unplanned pregnancies and testing for sexually transmitted infections among young adults and youth. (Valerie Barr, training manager at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, says they call it the “stampede feeling.”)
The summer can be one long movie romance in the making, or a minefield of new experiences – and if students learned the mechanics in sex ed, they may not have grasped the ethics.
That’s where parents can step in, says Ms. Barr, to teach their teen to trust their instincts, to understand their obligations and to feel supported to make the right choices. “Consider this part of our household discussion,” she says. “Then your kids will come and talk to you.”
Ms. Barr and other experts list a number of typical social scenarios – and how you can help your teen manage them.
Your 17-year-old gets a job as a host at a restaurant, and is uncomfortable with the sexual undertones of the talk in the kitchen.
Teenagers often work in places where the managers and the employees are close in age, which can blur the lines between friend (and potential romantic partner) and boss. But Mia Taghizadeh, a 27-year-old youth facilitator at West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund in Vancouver, says the teens she meets often have limited knowledge of their employment rights and too narrow a definition of what constitutes sexual harassment.
Parents can clarify, says Ms. Taghizadeh, “that it’s anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, anything that is drawing attention to your sex or gender.” They should also make sure their teen understands their legal rights, and that management is obligated to make the work environment safe.
Teens may not see the power dynamics involved with someone who sets their hours, especially if they are socializing outside work. “It’s a good time to explore why the laws are in place,” says Kim Martyn, a sexual health educator for Toronto Public Health. And if an employee is under the age of 18, they cannot give consent to a person in authority over them – so romance gets a cold shower, even if the feeling is mutual.
Your teen admits to making out with an acquaintance at a party while they were both under the influence, and doesn’t feel it was the right thing to do.
The best first response for a parent, according to Ms. Martyn: Reserve judgment. Few teenagers make it through adolescence without doing something which, in the light of day, they regret.
However, in addition to making sure a sexual assault didn’t occur, Ms. Martyn says it’s essential that your teen understands the definition of consent – both legally and morally. Teenagers need to know that consent is not possible when someone is heavily under the influence – and in that situation, the onus is on the pursuer to put on the brakes.
If the person is 12 or 13 years old, they may only consent to sexual activity if the partner is not more than two years older; for someone who is 14 or 15, they may only consent if the person no more than five years older.
As Ms. Martyn observes, the courts aren’t getting clogged up with sexual assault cases between 16-year-olds who go to “second base” and then regret it. But it’s important to teach your teenager that there is a moral obligation to determine what Ms. Martyn calls “enthusiastic consent.”
In her class, to define true consent, she uses an experiment in which someone asks to borrow another person’s cell phone: If the person hems and haws, says they are waiting for a call or hesitates, are they freely volunteering their phone? (The teens, she says, always answer no.)
“It is really important that we stress with young men especially that they have a responsibility not to pressure anyone,” says Ms. Barr, “but also for them to call their friends out,” for a range of behaviour such as rape jokes or sexist comments, and cajoling an unwilling partner.
Teens should be taught to ask, “Are you still okay with this?” as the situation progresses. Ms. Barr suggests the head-heart-body model: If one of those parts is feeling uneasy, it’s a good sign to take a time out.
But if it’s the day after, and your teen is worried about something that happened, ask them to consider what they want to do next. (As well as cover off any concerns about pregnancy or STIs.)
Your teen wants to attend a beach party at someone’s cottage.
Parents should risk acting “uncool” and be firm about finding out who will be supervising, says Ms. Martyn. They should also be ready to say no if they don’t like the answer. But prepared for your teen ending up at a party without your knowledge.
As a matter of course, she suggests discussing what happens in that environment, how much they think is okay to drink as well as the impact of alcohol, and how to handle drinking-and-driving situations. “You can’t just say ‘don’t go with someone who has been drinking,’ and not problem-solve in advance,” says Ms. Martyn.
Be clear that they can call you, or a designated relative if the situation gets out of hand, and that you will be discreet. “Often the thought of having your mom or dad pull up, and then lay into you, will deter teens from making the call,” says Ms. Martyn. Save the discussion for the next morning. (As for hosting a party without parental knowledge, Ms. Barr recommends advising your teenager that the homeowner can be liable if someone is injured or drives drunk and gets in an accident.)
But often, as teenagers tell Ms. Taghizadeh, even the best plans break down in a party buzz. “People will talk about how their friends left them alone, or closed the door and giggled on the other side.” No matter how much pre-party prepping happens, experts say, the main message needs to be that the victim of a sexual assault is not at fault, no matter what they wore or how much they drank.
First love ends in heartbreak.
Summer romances can move quickly and end suddenly. Don’t diminish the feelings, says Ms. Barr, and let your teen lead the discussion.
Teens may feel guilt and shame around their first sexual experiences – something that parents should be careful not to foster. A confidant’s role, suggests Ms. Barr, is to “teach that a mistake is not a disaster.”
It can be an opportunity to explore what they learned from the relationship – as well as avoid rebounding into another one. In the end, Ms. Martyn reminds parents to listen more than they talk. “But don’t assume that just because they roll their eyes, they won’t appreciate your concern.”