Teens today deal with threats to their safety that weren’t around in the past, like the dangers that can come online. Here are some tips on talking about bullying, staying safe online, sexting, and drugs and alcohol with your teen.
What should I keep in mind?
You can help your teen make good decisions.
Your teen is becoming more and more independent. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need your help staying safe and making good decisions. Just as you taught your child how to cross the street or ride a bike safely, you can teach your teen the skills they need to deal with bullying, online safety, and dealing with peer pressure.
Show respect, empathy, and kindness at home.
Share your beliefs about how others deserve to be treated, and stick by those beliefs. Think about what being a good role model looks like. Treat strangers, colleagues, and family members with the respect you want your teen to treat the people in their life with. Help your teen see the value in standing up for what’s right instead of just going along with the crowd.
Model safe behaviors.
Be critical about information you read on the internet that’s not from a reliable source, and be really careful about sharing any personal information or geographic location on social media. When it comes to alcohol, think about how often and how much you drink in front of your teen, and be thoughtful about how you talk about your own drinking in front of them.
How do I talk to my teen about bullying?
You can help your teen understand that bullying is never OK, and help your teen if they’re being bullied. Bullying includes:
Making someone feel left out
Humiliating someone in front of others
Hitting, kicking, punching, pushing, or other violent behavior
Teasing and name-calling
Destroying or stealing someone’s things
Be clear with your teen these actions are never OK — and make sure that you’re setting a good example by not doing any of these things yourself.
If your teen gets in trouble for bullying, or you think they might be bullying someone, talk with them about what’s going on. Listen to them, and help them understand why they might be acting that way. Bullies become bullies for a reason — usually because things in their life are causing them pain. Talking with a counselor or therapist can help them sort through their feelings.
If your teen is being bullied, it can lead to bigger problems. The most serious consequence of bullying is that teens who are bullied are at a higher risk for suicide and self harm than other teens. Bullying can lead to depression and anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Bullied teens are more likely to skip school than other teens, which can affect their grades.
Let your teen know that if they’re being bullied at school, they can talk to you. It may help to use a word other than “bullying” when you talk about it — like “bothering you,” “harassing you,” or “giving you a hard time,” because “bullying” can sound like something that only happens to younger kids, and your teen may feel embarrassed about it.
Sometimes teens feel so ashamed that they don’t tell anyone that they’re being bullied. Some signs that your teen might be experiencing bullying are:
Going very early or very late to school
Having important possessions disappear or be destroyed without explanation
Avoiding social situations
Signs of depression or self harm (like cutting)
Some of these signs are also signs of an unhealthy relationship. Talk with your teen so you can figure out what’s going on. Let them know that you love them no matter what, and that you want to help. Here are some dos and don’ts on handling bullying:
Do listen to your teen and comfort them.
Do remind them that what’s happening isn’t their fault.
Do talk with school administrators about the situation, and ask for their help with stopping it.
Don’t encourage your teen to fight back. That could lead to them getting hurt, or getting suspended or expelled from school.
Don’t tell them to ignore it or get over it. It can make them feel like no one cares about them, or that it’s never going to get better.
Don’t tell your teen to try harder to fit in. Making them feel like there’s something wrong with them or that it’s their fault can hurt their self esteem even more.
Some teens are more likely than others to be the targets of bullies, like LGBTQ teens, disabled teens, and some religious or ethnic minorities.
It’s against the law to harass someone based on a disability or a religious or ethnic background. Schools usually have policies in place that discourage that kind of bullying or harassment. Make sure your teen knows that there’s nothing wrong with talking with teachers or school administrators if they’re the victim of this kind of harassment. If your teen has a disability, talk with your teen’s teachers or other school staff to come up with a plan to help your teen feel safe. Not all schools have rules protecting LGBTQ teens, but this is changing. Read more about creating safe spaces for your LGBTQ teen.
Some bullying — especially among young women — revolves around rumors about who they’re having sex with or what kind of sex they’re having. This kind of bullying is sometimes called “slut-shaming.” Having an open, honest dialogue with your teen about sexuality can help them better understand sexuality and be less likely to judge other people — or worry too much about what other people think.
If your teen is having a hard time with bullying, talking with a counselor or therapist can help. Your teen’s doctor, school guidance counselor, or your nearest Planned Parenthood health center may be able to help you find one in your area. And encouraging your teen to explore their interests outside of school, or join more activities at school, can help them find friends and a sense of community, and help them build up their self-esteem.
How do I talk to my teen about staying safe online and cyberbullying?
The internet is great because it allows teens to connect with each other and learn endless things. But technology needs to be used responsibly. What your teen does online can affect their personal safety as well as their relationships with the people in their life. What they say about other people can have consequences, too. Help your teen understand the importance of what they say and do online.
Ask your teen questions about what they’re up to online — what sites they go to, what social networks they use, what their friends do online. Finding out what they’re doing online is just like finding out about other parts of their life. It shows you care, and it helps you understand your teen’s life better.
Talk with them about these simple guidelines for staying safe online:
Assume that anything you post online can be seen by anyone — including peers and teachers. Be careful about the kinds of jokes you make online, because they can be easily misunderstood. Most social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have privacy settings you can customize — which is great. But it’s very easy for people to take screenshots (meaning pictures of what they see on their screen) of whatever you post, and then share it publicly without your permission.
Be careful with your money and personal information online. There are lots of scams happening on the internet. Don’t buy stuff from websites you don’t know and trust, and never send someone you don’t know money online. And don’t share personal information online (like your social security number or home address).
Talk through your problems with friends or partners offline. Things tend to get uglier online than they would face-to-face.
Online bullying (AKA “cyberbullying”) can be just as devastating as in-person bullying. It can increase teens’ risk of suicide, make learning at school difficult, and cause lasting emotional harm. Unlike bullying in school or in public, cyberbullying can be 24/7, and can reach people when they’re alone. Examples of cyberbullying include:
Sending emails, texts, or messages on social networking sites with threats, insults, or rumors
Making fake profiles or email addresses with the intention of hurting someone’s feelings
Posting embarrassing photos or videos
Some schools have rules about cyberbullying that can lead to expulsion, and some kinds of cyberbullying are illegal, like threatening violence, sending sexually explicit images of minors, and stalking someone online.
Talk with your teen about cyberbullying. Be clear that it’s never OK to harass or ridicule people online. And let them know if someone bothers them online, they can talk with you and you can make a plan together. Your child’s school can help you with that plan. Encourage your teen to put the phone/computer/tablet down for a while if things start feeling out of control online.
How do I talk to my teen about sexting?
Sexting means using your phone to send sexy messages or naked photographs of yourself. Sexting is a pretty common thing for teens — 2 out of 5 teens say that they’ve sent a sexually suggestive message, and 2 out of 10 have sent nude or partially nude pictures of themselves to others.
Teens often think these messages will stay private when in reality there’s no way to be sure that they will. Teens can even get into serious trouble for sexting because of laws about child pornography.
One reason teens sext is because they want to impress the person they’re messaging with — either with their body or with their “mature” attitude toward sex. Sexting is one thing that happens when teens — especially young women — are taught that their appearance is the most important thing about them. So praise them for things other than their looks and remind them that what other people think of their looks doesn’t matter.
Here are other ways to discourage your teen from sexting:
Remind them about the risks — like what would happen if they got in trouble with the police, or if people at their school (or a college they want to go to, or job they want, etc.) saw a nude or semi-nude picture of them.
Remind them that no matter how many promises someone makes to keep a message secret, there’s no 100% guarantee that the photograph won’t get out. And anyone who pressures them into doing something they’re not comfortable with isn’t a real friend or good partner.
Ask your teen what they would do if someone asked them to send them a nude picture. Role play so your teen can practice saying no. Totally ignoring those requests is okay, too — they don’t have to respond to someone who wants them to do something that could get them in trouble.
How do I talk to my teen about alcohol/drugs and sex?
Sex doesn’t mix well with alcohol and other drugs. Why? Because consent isn’t possible when one or both people having sex are wasted. And being drunk or high can make you decide to have sex when you otherwise wouldn’t have, and forget to use birth control and condoms.
Not all teens drink or do drugs. But those that do often don’t know their limits, and they can easily get more drunk or more high than they plan to. That can lead to all kinds of dangerous situations — like drunk driving or alcohol poisoning — and it can also lead to sexual assault.
Talk with your teen about consent. Even if your teen doesn’t drink or take any drugs, they may at some point, and it’s important for them to understand that even when both people having sex are drunk or high, it can still be considered rape or sexual assault.
Letting your teen know what your expectations are around drugs and alcohol is important. Remind them about their long-term goals so that they can remember them when faced with short-term temptations, and help them understand how drugs or alcohol could get in the way of their goals.
Your teen may try drugs and alcohol anyway — either now or when they’re a little older. Help them think through some of these situations:
What would you do if you had too much to drink?
How do you think being drunk or high could impact your ability to ask for, or give, consent?
How do you think being drunk or high could affect how you make the decision to have sex, or use birth control/condoms?
What will you do if your driver gets drunk or high? (Make sure they know they can always call you, or someone else they trust like an older sibling, aunt, or uncle.)
What will you do if you see someone at a party being sexually assaulted or harassed?
What will you do if someone passes out from drinking or taking drugs at a party?
Be clear that stopping one of their peers from sexually assaulting someone who’s drunk or high is the right thing to do. Let your teen know that you expect them to be the one standing up for the right thing, instead of following what everyone else is doing.