School is back in session, but it’s not too late to talk to your child about their dating relationships, affirmative consent, and how to keep themselves safe. While these types of conversations can be uncomfortable and even a little scary, it’s paramount that parents talk to young adults about dating violence and sexual assault.
Here’s why. All too many students go off to college each year and their academic performance, relationships, and mental/physical health decline, due to interpersonal violence. In fact, according to Love is Respect, 57 percent of college students say dating abuse is difficult to identify and 58 percent say they don’t know how to help someone who is experiencing it. While there is no full-proof plan to prevent this from happening to your child, you can reduce their risks by being proactive and initiating a dialogue using the tips below.
As your child adjusts to their new environment and workload, they’ll more than likely begin to socialize with peers and enter into dating relationships.
Set Expectations. Before they do, encourage your child to get to know their partner and outline expectations at the outset of the relationship. For example, you might ask your child: “What would be acceptable or unacceptable in your relationship? What would happen if your partner does not agree or has different expectations?” Be sure to emphasize that both partners should be clear about their wants, needs, and limits. This will allow them to hold their partner accountable and ultimately minimize incidents of dating violence.
Communicate Without Violence. Even with clear expectations,conflict may still emerge.Remind your child that it is perfectly normal to have a disagreement or argument with their partner; however, the use of violence is never acceptable. Next, teach them how to deal with conflict within their relationships by showing them how to flip the script. For example, their partner might say something like: “If you love me you, you would do this.” You could encourage your child to respond by saying, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t pressure me.” And if your child is not comfortable talking about their own relationships, you can always point out conflict depicted in a movie or popular television show, and then discuss how the conflict could have been resolved differently by using problem-solving techniques.
How to Talk Consent with Young Adults
Establish Boundaries.It is also important to discuss respecting your partner’s boundaries. A perfect way to start this conversation is while watching television and asking, “How did he/she know it was okay to hug, kiss, or touch their partner?” Once your child has replied, discuss how body language and cues can easily be misinterpreted, and explain why they should obtain affirmative consent (i.e. the word “Yes”) even if it feels awkward. It is also important to note that the word “No” does not mean “Maybe,” consent can be withdrawn at any time, and they have the right to say “no,” even if they’re in a dating relationship. It also wouldn’t hurt to have your child practice their assertions skills with you.
Reducing Risk and Staying Safe
Next, you will want to address the various ways your child can keep themselves safe when they are on campus or living away from home. Think of this conversation as the young adult version of “Stranger Danger,” except you’ll want to include your child’s peers and dating partners. Remember, sexual assault can be perpetrated by a friend, classmate, or even a dating partner. It can also happen on or off campus.
Use a Buddy System. Although college campuses are safe for the most part, young adults should remain alert and consider using a buddy system (i.e. hanging with a trusted group of friends). You will want to talk with your child about the importance of using this system when going on a first date, to a party, or commuting across campus in the evening. They should let someone know where they are going and consider establishing a “code word” or using an app like Circle of 6 to alert friends in the event that they need assistance.
Have an Exit Strategy. Remind your child to trust their intuition. If they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they should leave immediately, use emergency phones on campus, and/or ask campus security to escort them back to their dorm. Some colleges and universities even have “safe walk” programs or groups dedicated to providing students with a safe walk home.
Watch Beverages. Encourage your child to pour their own drinks and never take unopened beverages, as they could be spiked with date rape drugs that may be colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It’s a good idea to become familiar with the most common types of substances used to facilitate sexual assault (e.g., rohypnol, GHB, ketamine) and review them with your kids.
Defend Yourself. You might also consider enrolling your child in a self-defense course so they can learn how to physically protect themselves. Be sure to review your child’s school policy and state laws before giving them self-defense tools, such as a taser or pepper spray.
Protect Yourself. And since young adults often meet peers and dating partners online, it would be beneficial to discuss how to remain safe on these types of platforms. Have your child carefully consider what information they share online, encourage them to adjust their privacy settings, and avoid giving out too many details (i.e. location or passwords). They should always meet potential dating partners they connected with online in a public location first.
Helping Others and Themselves
Finally, encourage your child to be an active bystander and intervene if they see something that makes them uncomfortable.
Speak Out. Tell your child that if they see something, say or do something. You might even practice role playing with your child how they might respond if they saw a friend at a party who appears incapacitated and is being taken to a secluded area. You will want to discuss specific language that your child could use in these types of scenarios, such as “Hey, she/he doesn’t look okay. Are you okay?”
Reach Out. Last, but not least, you will want to encourage your child to get help for themselves or others. You might ask, “Who would you talk to if you needed help? Where would you go?” Your child might consider reaching out to a residential advisor, campus police, health center, or their Title IX Office. These individuals can ensure that your child receives medical attention and evidence is preserved (e.g., text messages, voicemails, instant messages, articles of clothing, photos of injuries). They can also assist your child with schedule and housing changes, safety planning, and restraining orders. Keep in mind, some young adults may be hesitant to utilize campus resources, due to fear and shame. With that being said, you might instruct your child to connect with local domestic violence or sexual assault agencies. It would also be a good idea to discuss how they might take care of themselves emotionally by talking to a friend, school counselor, local /national hotline, and of course, you. Letting your child know they can always rely on you, even if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away, can make all the difference in ensuring that they get the help they may need.
Remember, these conversations don’t have to be a one-time opportunity. Keep the conversation going!