Guest opinion by Angele Kirk

When you think back to your first love, your first date, your first relationship, the memories may make you smile. Not everyone is fortunate in that way; it’s the unhappy truth that many young people find themselves in abusive or sexually coercive situations. Teens experiencing dating violence – whether physical or emotional – are more likely to become pregnant and report an STD diagnosis. And while anyone can be the victim of violence, young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of dating violence, almost triple the national average. Young people need to learn age-appropriate skills around healthy relationships, consent and communication – as well as how to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships and how to leave an abusive relationship safely.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a great opportunity for families to talk about sexuality and relationships, including the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships and what constitutes consent. When teens and parents are comfortable talking with each other about relationships and sex, parents are better able to help their teens make healthy decisions.

Parents can help their children understand that a healthy relationship is one that makes you feel good about yourself and each other, and that makes you feel safe and respected. An unhealthy relationship is one in which one partner does hurtful things to get power or control over the other person, and may include physical violence, isolation from family and friends, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, stalking, threats or coercion. Parents can also help young people who may be navigating a relationship figure out if their partner is being abusive and, if so, help them end the relationship.

It’s also important that young people understand consent and have the skills to engage in healthy communication around sex and relationships. Good communication skills are an important part of healthy sexual intimacy. Silence is not consent. Saying “I don’t know” is not consent. Being pressured or manipulated into doing something is not consent. We need to teach young people how to say “no” or “I’m not sure” and how to listen to and respect others’ boundaries.

As the nation’s largest provider of sex education, Planned Parenthood is committed to helping parents talk about healthy relationships and consent with their children at different ages. We’re here to help, and we’re committed to making sure that parents can address decision making with their children, as well as their own beliefs and values about sexuality and relationships.

There’s no one best way to talk about sex and sexual health. The important thing is to start and continue having these conversations. We all want kids to stay healthy and safe and have the tools to do so. It’s crucial that teens understand that this includes identifying healthy vs. unhealthy relationships and what consent looks like.

Angele Kirk manages the Salem Health Center for Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, the largest nonprofit provider of sexual and reproductive health care and youth education programs in Oregon and Southwest Washington. For more information visit PPCW.org.