Adults have various relationships with teenagers—parent, aunt, uncle, guardian, teacher, grandparent, religious leader, coworker, etc. While the nature of each of these roles is unique, in the appropriate settings, adults may find it necessary to have conversations with teens about healthy relationships, consent, and what setting healthy boundaries looks like.
These can be hard conversations, and most adults aren’t sure how to navigate such a topic. Here, a University of Utah expert from the Center for Campus Wellness offers tips and advice on how to talk to teens about healthy relationships and consent.
The Center for Campus Wellness at the University of Utah
Brittney Badger-Gleed is the director of the Center for Campus Wellness at the U, a comprehensive wellness office providing an array of services for students to meet them at all stages of wellness and well-being. The center’s core prevention and education services focus on healthy relationships, bystander intervention, sexual wellness, mental health, violence prevention, and harm reduction. They offer educational workshops, a victim-survivor advocacy program, wellness coaching, student events, and campuswide awareness campaigns.
If students experience relationship violence, sexual violence, or family violence, they can connect with the Center’s team of advocates in a confidential, trauma-informed space to evaluate the options they might need to heal, explore routes for justice, or just get support while they’re students at the U, Badger-Gleed explained.
“We do everything from referring to mental health resources, to assisting in safety planning, to connecting students to the right resources because it can be tough to navigate, especially after experiencing something pretty traumatic,” she said.
Talking to teens about ‘consent’
Educating teens about consent is important. You can start by opening dialogue about healthy relationships and discussing “consent,” what it means and how to ask for it, explained Badger-Gleed. “You can’t really talk about consent without talking about the importance of boundaries because that’s what consent essentially is,” she added.
“When we hear ‘consent,’ we often think about sexual relationships, but truly expanding what consent means…it is making sure we’re receiving explicit, clear, unambiguous, voluntary permission to do or say something with another human being—that is consent.”
Badger-Gleed said that can and should be applied in everyday scenarios. “When we talk to students, we ask, ‘How often are you practicing consent in everyday interactions? For instance, when you take pictures with your friends, do you ask them if it’s okay to post them on your socials?’” The idea is to ask for permission in all sorts of scenarios. “Communicating about permission with other people is helping us to practice setting healthy boundaries, and letting people know if we’re comfortable or not with certain things,” Badger-Gleed said.
In previous generations, children were often expected to listen to adults and “do what they’re told or else.” Now, the modern generation of parents is having to unlearn these outdated tactics that can inadvertently teach children people-pleasing practices that can compromise their personal boundaries. By parents modeling healthy boundaries at home and respectfully asking their children for permission in an array of situations, their teenagers learn through example how to establish their boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others.
Why young people struggle with setting boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries can be uncomfortable. According to Badger-Gleed, people often confuse being assertive with aggression. She explained how people of all ages get uncomfortable when it comes to saying “no” because they shy away from conflict. They say, “I’d rather sit with my own discomfort and appease the other person and let it go,” she explained.
Being assertive, she said, actually helps to build trust in relationships by knowing we can communicate our needs and the things we want or don’t want with other people. We also need to give the other person the chance to practice respecting that boundary. “Being assertive is being kind to yourself and taking care of your needs—that’s something that I think has been a little lost, not just within the Utah culture, but across the country,” she said.
“The more we practice asking for respect or boundaries, the easier it gets.” Badger-Gleed explains how the boundary issue is more compounded with teens due to the added layers of power differentials, such as differences in gender, age, socioeconomic status (rich vs. poor), or roles at work or in school. “Any time power comes into play, it makes it even more difficult for people who hold less power to feel like they can be assertive with someone who holds more power,” Badger-Gleed said. Then, peer pressure is another factor at play.
“On campus, we see people away from home for the first time who want to feel like they belong,” she said. Students often sacrifice their boundaries or values to fit in with peers, especially when alcohol and controlled substances are involved, both of which can lead to engaging in risky behaviors.
Badger-Gleed and others at the Center for Campus Wellness advise students not to apologize for setting boundaries. Young people can be very kind and respectful when communicating their boundaries, but they should never feel the need to apologize. “Ask your partner to listen, but turn it around and ask about his or her boundaries, this way you have more of a well-rounded conversation,” Badger-Gleed added.
5 tips for teaching teens and young adults about consent and boundaries
Don’t force children or young adults to give hugs or kisses to anyone, even friends or family.
Encourage teens and young adults to have an open dialogue with friends or romantic partners about emotional and physical boundaries. For example, they can ask a friend, “Are you okay with holding hands or kissing?”
Encourage teens to ask themselves if they’re okay with sharing their location with someone they just started dating. This conversation is about respecting privacy, but also the dangers of sharing your location with someone you just met. Digital boundaries are new, but they are a critical topic of discussion.
Teach teens and young adults how to communicate healthy boundaries. Teach them to be very clear, and not be vague. Use “I statements” like, “I am comfortable with this, or I am not comfortable with that.” I statements allow students to have ownership over those boundaries.
If the teen or young adult is the one who crossed the line, who caused harm, help them learn from their mistake, change their behavior, and learn to do better so they no longer cause harm. Encourage them to apologize, be accountable, get educated, and implement those tools so they don’t repeat the mistake—approach it with empathy and education so they have a safe space.
For further information and resources, Badger-Gleed recommended visiting Loveisrespect.org, and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA).