By Julie Evans, MSW, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape
How do you ask your child if they’ve ever been pressured to send naked photos? Or talk to your teen about an interaction you overheard them have with a dating partner?
Talking about dating, sex and relationships with teens is something very few parents and caregivers walk into with ease. Uncertain about how to prompt such discussions, let alone how to effectively drive a message home, starting is often the most difficult and confusing step. There is good news, however – practicing these chats can actually help you master the seemingly impossible dialogues.
This is why United Way, as part of its support of Southwest PA Says No More, is helping facilitate these conversations. Dating Matters: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships is a comprehensive teen dating violence prevention model developed by the Centers for Disease Control to stop teen dating violence before it starts. The evidence-based program was introduced to Pittsburgh recently, as in-person training sessions focus on teaching adults about teen dating safety, recognizing warning signs, starting conversations and supporting young people with healthy relationships, and decreasing risks for dating violence.
Based on these innovative, interactive work sessions, here are a few extremely workable lessons that are easy to translate into real-life conversations about healthy relationships:
Establish a Natural Starting Point
Perhaps the most popular question I am asked at Dating Matters seminars is about how to initiate the conversation. Because this can be tricky, a large portion of the Dating Matters training focuses on exactly how to start these sometimes-awkward conversations with teens.
Often, a perfect segue into the conversation is right before our very eyes in the form of television, music or the Internet. Since media is constantly in our line of vision, why not use it to our advantage? Use these moments as a jumping-off point, as establishing common ground between you and the teen goes a long way.
For instance, if you and your teen are watching a movie, and a scene features a romantic relationship, that can be an easy way to ask your teen about what they believe is a healthy relationship. Whether the relationship in the film is healthy or troubled doesn’t matter as long as you tap into the opportunity to speak to your teen about the subject.
Confidence Through Practice is Key
Just as you might prepare for any professional presentation or interview, we recommend parents ‘rehearse’ a healthy relationship conversation before starting one. There are a handful of ways to practice ahead of time – rehearsing by yourself (mirror conversations or note writing both work), or with a peer, counselor, fellow parent, or friend until you’re confident and comfortable with the language of the conversation. “Practice sessions” grant parents the chance to run-through difficult topics before diving in head-first with a teen. First drafts of anything rarely are perfect, so taking the time to iron out the bumps is well worth it!
Improving Your Dialogue is a Process
It can be scary and overwhelming to imagine talking about sexual violence with a young person. This difficulty makes support among parents, teachers, guidance counselors and coaches all the more vital. Mastering these discussions is a process that has many twists and turns, so it is important to not become discouraged. Because of great evidence-based programs like Dating Matters, daunting tasks like asking your child/teen, “if they feel safe” become a little bit easier over time.
I encourage people to continually work with one another because these conversations (like most conversations) are on-going and constantly changing. There is no one-size-fits-all script you learn once. Seminars are also beneficial because of the wide range of diverse participants that attend. When a dynamic group of people from different backgrounds are able to connect and collaborate on ways to make our children safer, good things happen for everyone.
To learn more about Dating Matters visit: https://southwestpasaysnomore.org/dating-matters/
Julie Evans, MSW has been with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape for more than twenty years currently serving as the Director of Prevention Services. She recently lent her voice and expertise to two of Southwest PA Says No More programs. Since early 2019, she has led Dating Matters: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships in-person and online interactive workshops, as well as United Way’s Coaching Boys into Men initiative. Both programs provide pivotal guidance for any adult looking to prevent violent behaviors from hurting young people and their relationships.