When a teen graduates high school, a million things run through parents’ minds. Are they going to be able to live on their own? How will they handle difficult situations? I can’t believe how fast they grew up! But how often do parents stop to think, does my young adult understand how to have a healthy, romantic relationship?
During this time, the transition to life after high school is perhaps the most important time to have or reiterate the conversation about love and its many forms.
According to a report released last week by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, “large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships,” and are “anxious about developing them.” This is due to the fact that parents, educators and other adults are not providing much guidance on the topic.
“Some parents don’t even think about it, it’s not on their radar,” said Richard Weissbourd, Harvard educator and director of Making Caring Common. “Some parents don’t know what to say. Some parents feel they failed in their own relationships, or they feel they don’t have wisdom. I think they do, but they might not be confident. Love is a complex question. They assume kids don’t want to talk to them.”
But it turns out, kids do want to talk to them. In fact, of over 2,000 survey respondents, 70-percent of 18-to-25-year-olds said they wanted their parents to provide them with more information about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship. This included “how to have a more mature relationship,” “how to deal with breakups,” and “how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship.”
Many respondents were also confused about how to even know what a healthy relationship looks like.
“I do think after high school young people are more likely to want to engage their parents in these conversations,” Weissbourd said. “They’re at an age when they are making probably two of the most important decisions of their life; one about work, one about love.”
Talk About Romantic Love
Parents may be having the sex talk with their kids, but they are not extending it to the love talk. “The big case we were making is that you have to think about why you have these deep and intense feelings about someone else,” Weissbourd said. “But our young people aren’t doing that.”
Weissbourd thinks most teens do know in theory that they should be self-respecting in relationships, but they have a hard time identifying what that actually looks like. Parents must go one critical step further and describe specifics about various romantic and sexual situations, Weissbourd stressed.
“This means spelling it out,” Weissbourd said. “What does it really mean to be respectful in a relationship? It is about being generous, making sacrifices. Parents need to talk about the things that constitute respect.”
Young people often can confuse love with obsession or infatuation. They experience the feelings, but they don’t always understand them. They need examples and they need to be engaged in ongoing conversations.
“Love changes over time, the kind of love you experience after 30 years of marriage isn’t the same as in college,” Weissbourd said. “Parents need to talk across these different kinds of love. But it’s hard for them when they don’t have vocab. A lot gets lost in translation.”
Other questions parents can ask include, what do you think being in love means? How do you know when you’re in love? How do you know when you’re in a good relationship? What does love feel like?
“Parents don’t have to have all the answers, but they have to be willing to engage in these conversations,” Weissbourd recommends. “It starts with simply being available to your kid as they begin to have romantic experiences.”
Address Misogyny and Harassment
Although one in five women report being sexually assaulted during college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the majority of the Harvard survey’s respondents had never talked with their parents about consent. 76-percent of respondents said they never had a conversation about how to avoid sexually harassing others.
When teens leave home after high school, there are many important conversations parents need to be having with them. Especially for teens heading off to college, the topics of sexual assault and consent are essential.
“Parents have to be very clear about what harassment is,” Weissbourd said. “A lot of people don’t know that certain things they are doing is harassment. Like telling strangers on the street that they’re hot or they look prettier if they smile. Part of [this conversation] is spelling that out for young men.”
62-percent of survey respondents said they never had a conversation with their parents about what sexual harassment is and 67-percent said they never talked about what they should do if they experience sexual harassment.
This doesn’t always have to be an awkward or intense conversation. Parents can find entry points by addressing misogynistic song lyrics, a news story about sexual assault, or movies that feature situations of harassment. The main point is that parents need to address it. The report states that, “In fact, it is irresponsible for those of us who are parents not to say something in these situations.”
Actively Work to Dispel Myths
One big myth that the study dispelled was about “hookup culture.” Teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate how many young people are actually casually hooking up. In fact, research shows that the large majority of young people are not hooking up frequently.
Beyond that, the report addressed other myths about love in our culture, such as the idea that when you’re in love you always know it, that once you’re in love, it is forever, and that love strikes you like a thunderbolt. Weissbourd said parents can be active in dispelling these myths by talking about them with their teens, identifying them in media, and addressing why these myths are so pervasive in our culture.
In conversations and interviews with young people, researchers said young adults often said they felt that a relationship will derail them in their career. “This is an important myth to explore with a young person,” Weissbourd said. “A stable relationship doesn’t have to distract you, but rather can energize you.”
Perhaps one of the main takeaways from the report, according to Weissbourd, is that we cannot simply upend these myths or these challenges with just facts alone, but by collaborative efforts to engage young people on these topics by parents, high schools, colleges, educators, and other caring adults.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late to talk about this,” Weissbourd said. “It can be helpful for parents thinking about their own relationships. These conversations are really important for everyone.”
The appendix of the report provides tips for parents to help teens and young adults develop healthy relationships and to help reduce misogyny and sexual harassment among this demographic.