Ask SAFE: How do I talk to my child about challenging topics at college?Written by Meg Greene
Whether your child is going back to campus or they’re heading away to college for the first time, challenges are ahead. Some good, some less so. Sexual assault, masculinity, gender identity, and many other nuanced topics are going to come up.
Meg Greene on our Expect Respect team tackled a few of those tricky questions.
And to learn more about Expect Respect, click here. Expect Respect has served the Austin area since 1989 by promoting healthy relationships and preventing violence and abuse among children and teens. Our team provides innovative, research-based programs and trainings and collaborate with schools, health-care, law enforcement, and other youth-serving organizations to create a safer environment for all young people.
1. My daughter is getting ready to head off to college. What do she and I need to ask the college about her safety and the school’s response to issues of assault, sexual violence, and other issues?
Here are some possible questions to consider asking:
- What kind of training and resources are available to the student body around topics such as Title IX, consent, and healthy relationships?
- What are the statistics of sexual assault and relationship violence on and off campus?
- What is the university doing to prevent sexual assault and relationship violence on and off campus?
- Does the student code of conduct include issues of relationship violence and sexual assault?
- What resources does your campus offer to support survivors of relationship violence and sexual assault?
- What is the process for reporting assault?
2. How can I help to equip her for when potential bad things happen to her or her friends?
Encourage your daughter to talk with her friends before they head out for the evening. They can make a plan for how to stay safe. They should check in about how they are getting to and from parties or bars, let each other know how much they want to drink (or not), and consider how they will look out for one another and ensure no one gets left behind, or is isolated in an uncomfortable position.
If something does happen, encourage your daughter to start by believing her friend and asking them what kind of support they want or need. The decision to report an assault or seek any kind of legal action is always the choice of the survivor. Your daughter can be a good listener, offer to go with her friend to get an exam, pick up emergency birth control, or walk with them to the counseling center.
3. My child is going off to college and I want to make sure that he is not influenced by the negative aspects of masculinity so often found on university campuses. How do I remind him to be a respectful partner and/or a courageous bystander, if need be?
If you haven’t had a conversation about consent, it’s definitely time.
Your child has likely already gotten mixed messages around consent and they need your guidance to understand the importance of respectful physical intimacy. If you feel uncomfortable talking about it, acknowledge that — but let him know you hope he has safe and respectful relationships.
You can bring up the idea that sex isn’t just about one person’s wants and needs. It can be a fun and intimate way to connect with another person, but like romantic relationships, should be a space of equality. Consent is an enthusiastic yes to all sexual activity, requires a verbal conversation, and can change at any time during the encounter. All partners deserve to feel safe, listened to, and respected — whether it’s a long-term relationship or a one-night stand.
Remind him that people who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs cannot give consent. Encourage him to look out for people who might need support and consider how he could safely intervene.
Intervening can be direct, by saying, “Hey, that’s not cool. Leave them alone.” He could also distract the person by saying, “Hey, did you see the game the other night?” or “I wanted to talk to you about that English assignment!” and drawing them away from the situation.
It can also be indirect, by getting someone with more power in the situation — a bartender, bouncer, the person’s friend, the police (if necessary) — to intervene. By not intervening in moments of violence, we side with the person using violence and say we are okay with that behavior. Ultimately it allows that person to continue hurting others on campus and perpetuating a culture of violence.
4. My daughter has decided to adopt a new gender identity when she arrives at her new college. How can I help her and the school navigate these new waters?
Logistically, look into what the school’s policy is on shifting pronouns and names on official paperwork. Check to see if her college has a Gender and Sexuality Center or resources through Student Services.
Many schools have counseling and advocacy services to support students who are transitioning. Often there are student organizations that connect LGBTQIA+ identified students for socializing, activism, and advocacy work on campus. Finding a new community of people experiencing similar things will help support her as she makes this transition in a new community.
5. And how do I talk with my other children about this change?
If your daughter is ready to be out to her siblings, she should be the one to have a conversation with them. Outting your child to her siblings without her permission will damage your relationship and take away her right to come out to who she wants, when she’s ready.
That conversation might include the complexity of gender expression, gender identity, and sex assigned at birth. Trans Student Educational Resources has a great Gender Unicorn graphic that helps break down the terms. If your children are confused or need support understanding this shift, the best thing you can do is to model always using your daughter’s correct pronouns and chosen name.
If you make a mistake, whether she is there or not, you should always correct yourself. You can talk to your children about how it is important to use people’s correct names and pronouns because it’s a matter of respect and showing people you care about them.