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How to Talk with Your Student About Sexual Health and Healthy Relationships

Kate Harveston


Your student is growing up. They’ve moved out of the house and into a college residence hall, or they soon will. Is now the time to sit down and talk? Perhaps you've discussed the basics, like using protection, but what about healthy relationships and sexual health?

Some parents don't speak up because they think their voice doesn't matter. According to one survey, however, students claim their parents have the most significant influence over their decisions about sex — even more than friends and the media. Plus, studies show those who talk with their parents about sex are more likely to wait until they feel more ready or to use protection.

Don't be afraid to bring up this subject. Learn how to talk to your high school or college student today.

Talk About Sexually Transmitted Disease

According to research, 50% of sexually active youth will contract an STD before they're 25. Some common diseases, like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, are curable. Others, like genital herpes, Hepatitis B, HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV), are incurable but treatable.

Teach your student about the importance of talking with potential partners. If they decide to have sex, stress the necessity of a condom — it can prevent STDs and unplanned pregnancy. You should also discuss what to do if someone tries to pressure or cajole them into having sex without protection.

In general, help your student understand that they have the right to be in control of the kinds of intimacy, sexual or otherwise, that they want to experience. They should always feel safe, happy and comfortable when they are with a romantic partner.

Look for Local Health Resources

It's one thing to talk with your college student about healthy relationships and sex. However, you should also give them the resources needed to succeed. Show them where to buy condoms, including gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores. They can also shop for protection online.

Both sons and daughters should be comfortable discussing sexual health and activity with their primary care doctor (and the doctor will ask them!). In addition to check-ups with an internist or family practitioner, young women can see an OB-GYN. (If your daughter wants your input, you can help her find a provider who’s covered by your insurance.) During a check-up or OB-GYN visit, your daughter will have the option to choose a form of birth control, including a pill, injection or intrauterine device (IUD). Remember, no birth control method is 100% effective — though some are close.

Be open to talking about sexuality and how some people identify as gay, trans, non-binary, etc. Encourage your college student to join groups that support differences and welcome everyone.

Discuss Boundaries and Communication

In a healthy relationship, each person respects the other's space and privacy. We're all human, and we all need a little alone time. However, when you're in a new relationship and the butterfly feelings are fresh, it can be hard to think clearly.

Teach your student to recognize some red flag behaviors, both in others and in themselves. For example, cell phones connect us 24/7. Young people who are able to use their tech to constantly text, call and keep track of their friends will admit that this culture often creates significant stress and it can give dating partners the ability to be emotionally controlling and even abusive.

In a healthy relationship, arguments happen but they’re handled honestly and openly. Neither partner tries to smother or control the other. They don’t pile on guilt trips or neediness.

Counsel your college student that, if they feel the urge to bug a significant other because they're not responding, they should stop and breathe. Show them how to refocus on another activity. Sixty-two percent of adults who exercise or just take a simple walk to reduce stress say it’s effective. Does your student like to read? They can reduce stress by up to 68% with a good book. Whatever activity you decide upon, agree that it will be their go-to when they feel obsessed or stressed about what’s happening (or not happening) on their phone.

Set up a Support Network

When your student lives at home, they come to you with their worries, fears and needs. You can still help once they're in college, but they'll need to build their own support network, too.

What with dorm life, clubs and teams, and sitting together through classes, the college environment is ideal for making friends. Everyone is looking to establish a social circle. If your student enters a romantic relationship, encourage them to keep nurturing their other connections and friendships. We all need people to talk to and lean on, and it’s never a good idea to put all your emotional support eggs in one basket.

Point out Common Signs of Abuse

You love your student and want them to find a worthy partner. Unfortunately, however, unhealthy relationships are all too common. According to experts, 43% of college women experience violent and abusive behaviors while dating. Of all adolescents in the U.S., one in three is a victim of some form of abuse from a partner.

Talk to your student about the importance of consent. Do they have experience talking about it with intimate partners? Teach them to recognize the signs of abuse, including:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • Wild mood swings
  • An explosive temper
  • Constant put-downs
  • Physically inflicting pain

Let them know they can reach out if they ever have questions or need help, no matter the day or time.

Don't Act Like You Know Everything

As a parent, it's easy to get carried away with facts and figures. You can give a heartfelt speech about the importance of respect and safety, but your student might tune you out.

Instead, be frank about the fact that you don't know everything about sex and healthy relationships. If they ask a question you're unsure about, seek the answer together.

Don't be afraid to talk about your own experiences (without getting graphic). Perhaps your parents didn't talk about sex, and you had to learn everything on your own. Maybe your school preached abstinence-only and shied away from the topic of birth control. Teach your student why it's essential to learn about and protect their sexual health — ideally before they head off to college, but it is truly always the right time to make this a priority.

Is your student a high school senior? Talk to them about healthy relationships and sex.

While most high schools in the U.S. offer sex education, only 13 states require the information to be medically accurate. Many schools teach abstinence: waiting to have sex until marriage. However, this curriculum may not adequately prepare people for college life and beyond.

Do your student a favor and talk to them about healthy relationships and sexual health before they move into a dorm. Talk about what qualities they hope to find in a romantic partner. A simple discussion can prevent STDs, educate about accidental pregnancies and highlight the severity of abusive relationships — and set them on the path to knowing how to protect and nurture their own physical and emotional well-being.

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    Kate Harveston is a health and lifestyle journalist. Find more of her writing on her blog (So Well, So Woman), in College Parent Magazine by CollegiateParent, and on sites like YourTango, Greatist and Care2.
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    Laura Faeth
    5 months ago

    Thank you for covering this important topic. My daughter is dating her first boyfriend as a freshman in college. She knew him in high school, and he's at the same college, so a romance has blossomed. You offer some good advice and though it was tough at first to know she's sexually active, she went to my ob/gyn to get birth control yesterday. We've had some good discussions on the subject and I feel she's got her head on right about dating someone.

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