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How to Talk to Teenagers about Relationships: Interview with Shafia Zaloom

Does your teen have a crush on someone? Not sure how to talk to them about relationships? Shafia Zaloom, health educator and author of Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between, offers specific advice about when to have these conversations and what to say.

Q: My son is entering his first relationship. How can I talk to him about it?

Zaloom: Like any conversation you have with your kids, create an environment free of judgment, shame, and guilt to share with open honesty. One on one conversations can be very intimate and intimidating to kids, so these discussions are easier to do while engaged in an activity such as going on a walk or setting the table.

It doesn’t have to be one huge discussion. Parents can start by talking about the transition from being single to being in a relationship with someone. It can be as simple as stating plainly what the conversation will be about.

“I’ve realized that there’s a lot of information I want you to know about (certain thing). It can be an awkward topic, but I hope we can get to a place where it isn’t. I’d like us to start a conversation about what it’s like to explore relationships with other people within a romantic/sexual contact. I want you to understand that we care about you and we want the experiences you have to be on your terms and feel good to you, and I hope we can talk about what that looks sounds and feels like. It’ll be cringey occasionally for both of us but we’ll get through it together.”

Lead with empathy. As parents we should seek to expand our kids’ vocabulary to be able to fully express their emotions.

Q: What is respect in a relationship?

Zaloom: Respect in a relationship is treating others how they want to be treated. Healthy relationships are when the relationship means the same thing to both people who are in it. In reality, romantic and sexual relationships aren’t that different than any of the other relationships in our life; they require trust, a level of comfort around each other, loyalty, and honesty.

When you have conversations with teens, frame it with genuine curiosity and let your child be the expert on their own experience. Below are some questions you can use to help the conversation along:

  • Is there trust in the relationship?
  • What is trust and where do you feel trust in other parts of your life?
  • What does trust feel like in your body?
  • What are the things that you do together to reveal the trust?
  • Are you comfortable being yourself with this person?
  • Do you understand consent?
  • Do you both want the same thing?
  • Are you able to communicate how you want to be treated to this person?
  • Why and how do you want to express your feelings toward this person?

Remember, ask one or two per conversation, and read the moment to ask something appropriate to the activity going on around you. Let the conversations flow freely, and let your teenager open up more as these conversations develop.

Maryann Veyon is a rising senior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in Chemical Engineering.  She is passionate about music, writing, and energy sustainability.

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