My College:
Health & Safety

Don't Be Afraid to Talk to Your Student About Sex

Marybeth Bock, MPH


Living through a global pandemic has caused a lot of us to think more about our health over the past few years, and about ways to protect and improve our own health and that of our family members.

When it comes to our college students, we’ve been pretty consumed with COVID-19 issues and how the pandemic has affected their mental health. We've focused on making sure they had enough masks, and that they got vaccinated and tested to meet their campus guidelines. With all the news about mental health crises and higher rates of self-harm in young people, many of us have been paying attention to our students' levels of anxiety and asking if they’ve been feeling depressed at all.

In this way, the pandemic has conveniently given many of us a reason (or an excuse) to avoid talking to our college kids about sexual health. We may even have naively assumed they're not sexually active because of COVID-19 restrictions on social life.

But college is still college, and a high percentage of this age group is sexually active. No matter what kind of relationship you have with your young adult child, talking about sex with our kids can be awkward. You may be tempted to avoid sexual health discussions by making assumptions like these:

My kid doesn’t even have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

We talked about that stuff years ago.

They're smart, they know how to take care of themselves.

They have condoms/contraceptives, so they’re fine.

If you’ve found yourself thinking along those lines, here are some things to consider.

Kids hook up, sometimes casually.

Just because they haven’t been talking to or dating anyone in particular doesn’t mean they aren't having sex. Sex also happens when kids’ decision-making is impaired due to alcohol or drugs, and may not be something they had planned to do in advance. And the unfortunate reality is that sex sometimes happens without consent.

Sexual health concerns change over time.

An individual's health concerns change over time due to evolving relationships, sexual orientation/gender identity, body issues, and current situations. The college years are a period of growing independence, experimentation and exposure to different viewpoints and cultures.

When we believe that what we talked to our kids about when they were 14 or 16 is adequate to cover the situations they may now be experiencing at 20 or 22, we may be living in a state of denial, or just be plain out of touch — whether that’s due to non-disclosure from our student or our own lack of inquiry.

"Smart" isn't the same as safe or informed.

We all know book smarts don't necessarily equate with things like social and emotional wisdom and savvy. Clearly our college kids can be “smart” and many other things at the same time. Like overly trusting, impatient, embarrassed, or temporarily impaired.

We should also keep in mind that many college-age kids aren't fully comfortable communicating with potential romantic and sexual partners about their sexual history, likes and dislikes, and respectful physical and emotional boundaries.

For all these reasons, we need to keep talking with our kids and encouraging non-judgmental, safe discussions.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable.

Yes, they may shut you down repeatedly when you bring up the topic. Some of our kids are open about their experiences, but many are not, especially if they’ve felt judged or shamed in the past. It’s too easy to avoid the topic of sex altogether and simply just say neutral things like, “You’re being safe, right?” or “I know your Student Health office has resources if you need them.”

Parents of LGBTQ+ students also may feel ill-equipped to navigate conversations about sex with their kids. How do you talk to your child about experiences unique to the queer community if you’re straight? How can you feel equipped to offer relationship advice if you don’t fully understand what your student means if they tell you they call themselves non-binary? Is it even possible to give good advice about sexual health if your encounters won’t translate to what your child’s are or will be?

All of these situations, no matter whom your student is attracted to, are excellent opportunities to have open and honest discussions about their life, and a chance to do some research together or, at the very least, offer to help them start down a path to find exactly what support they need. Ask them if they have any resources to share in helping you to understand something that may currently be unclear.

Every young adult needs to know their parent is there for them and is putting their health and safety first, no matter what. A loving and life-long relationship with our child is the goal, and we get there in daily steps by accepting them for who they are in the present moment.

So, start out by engaging them in a new and honest way, or by following up with discussions you’ve had in the past. This can be done in person, perhaps over the phone, maybe by texting, or by simply sending them some links to resources. Be the one to break the ice if you’ve avoided these discussions in the past, or if your student has dodged any sexual health topic.

Treat your young adult with the respect and acceptance that they deserve. Vow to be uncomfortable and at least try. There is no right or wrong way to start talking about sex, love, or relationships, but conversations over good food, and opportunities like long walks or car rides are great times to open up and broach the topic. Talking about a situation you may have seen in a show or movie is another good way to approach an awkward subject matter.

When your child knows that you love and accept them for exactly who they are, they’ll be much more apt to talk honestly. And even if they aren’t quite there yet, they'll know you care deeply and will be waiting when they are ready.

Helpful Resources for Parents, Champions, Mentors, and Students
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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