Over the past few weeks, I have had speaking roles at numerous youth conferences, workshops and specialised sessions. There have been a few recurring themes but the one that stood out is teen relationships. During the question and answer periods and later on email or social media, participants having been asking a range of questions on topics including sex, violence and red flags.
Young people are in or wish to be in romantic relationships and they need to know how to develop healthy relationships and recognise the signs of an unhealthy relationship or an abusive partner. They also need comprehensive sexuality education, going beyond biology, focusing on social interactions, common experiences and support systems.
Many parents refuse to talk to their children about sex because they don’t want them to have sex. They also avoid talking about romantic relationships, except to forbid them, thinking it will prevent their children from engaging in them. Both of these are false, harmful beliefs and ineffective responses prompted by the parents’ discomfort rather than the children’s needs.
It is further complicated by adults’ own limited understanding of healthy relationships, sexuality and communication. By not talking to children about relationships and other potentially difficult topics, parents miss the opportunity to teach life skills, develop a closer bond and establish trust and confidence. It also causes children to hide parts of their lives in which they need guidance, believe their parents do not have the necessary information, or get information and advice from other sources which may or may not be accurate.
For some parents, it seems impossible to have these conversations with their children, often because the relationship is already strained. Some parents only speak to their children to give instructions or reprimand, making it difficult to engage with them even on lighter topics. In these cases, it is important to shift the relationship and that can take time.
Until a better relationship is established, it can be helpful to have a family member or friend talk to children about their lives, friendships, concerns and interests. An aunt, older cousin, or godparent can often fill the role because they already have familiarity and trust as well as experience and knowledge of the parents’ wishes which is key in giving feedback.
One of the best things parents can do to help their children to develop healthy relationships is to create space for them to interact with their friends in their own environments. Invite them over for dinner or to watch movies. Take them to fairs, festivals, and family events. Host game nights.
With COVID-19, we need to shift to virtual options. Encourage phone calls and other forms of interaction that take place in common spaces. This allows parents to get to know their children’s friends and also lets friends know their names and faces are familiar so they are not a secret. This increases the responsibility of the young people to treat each other with respect and reduces ammunition they may think they have against each other due to secrecy and fear of parents. It also allows parents to observe the dynamics in relationships, interrupt inappropriate behaviour and encourage healthy interaction.
Parents need to push past fear and discomfort. Attempts to protect children can easily backfire. They still have to make their own decisions and navigate their daily lives in the midst of peer pressure, misinformation, personal desire and home dynamics. Choose to prepare them for adulthood. When they turn 18, their brains will not automatically be loaded with the necessary information and skills. Aid in the development of adult capabilities by providing a safe space for them to learn and practice communication, setting boundaries and asking for help.
Let your children know what is and is not appropriate in romantic relationships. Tell them no one should be checking their phones, no one should be surveilling them and they do not have the right to control anyone else’s life. Let them know they are in charge of their own bodies and no one else’s. Give them someone to talk to if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you. Show them they can trust you to be reasonable, hones, and helpful.
Remember you make them more vulnerable when their relationships and experiences are secrets. There is a way to balance giving them room to grow and learn and ensuring they are safe. You did it when they learned to walk, when they wanted to touch everything as a way to discover and learn, when the training wheels came off their bicycles if they had them, and when they first got into a pool or the ocean. There is fear and the will to protect, but there is also the responsibility, as a parent, to help them to make progress, assuming an acceptable amount of risk and putting safeguards in place.
Five years down, ten to go
Friday, September 25, will mark the five year anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations. The 17 goals — also known as the Global Goals — are focused on economy, environment and equality. The include ending poverty, ending hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, sustainable cities and communities and climate action. The goals are interconnected and interdependent. They cannot be achieved by working in silos or ignoring other issues. SDG 5 for gender equality is one that is obviously connected to all of the other goals, and we have seen that connection in The Bahamas over the past year.
Disaster response is significantly impacted by gender. Following Hurricane Dorian in 2019, those of us involved in relief efforts clearly saw the distinction between men and women and the parts they played in recovery. In many families, the men stayed or returned to Grand Bahama and Abaco to protect property, salvage what they could, muck and gut and make repairs. Women and children evacuated to Nassau and stayed or went to other islands and focused on getting the necessary supplies, securing safe temporary housing and getting children in school.
When COVID-19 led to lockdowns and curfews starting in March, women were burdened with even more unpaid domestic and care work and crisis hotlines saw an increase in calls about domestic violence against women. Gender impacts the way we move through the world and the effect that crisis events have on us, so SDG 5 has to not only be a part of all disaster management and crisis intervention work, but integrated into all of the other SDGs. That means SDG 5 cannot be the focus of women’s rights organizations alone, but environmental organizations, food assistance programmes, educational institutions, city planning and economic development committees.
Civil society needs to come together, look at the SDGs, identify primary areas of focus for each organization and thematic area, determine secondary SDGs of focus, and find the intersections. We need to reference the SDGs in our public work, ensuring the general public becomes familiar with the 17 goals and how they are relevant to us in our daily lives. We are not particularly familiar with the United Nations and that has created significant distance between its useful mechanisms and initiatives and our realities and ongoing work.
When we know the commitments the government has made, we are better able to hold it accountable. When non-governmental organisations make clear the connections between their everyday work and the SDGs, there is increased awareness which can lead to greater support. It can also help to familiarise people with the United Nations and its functions.
For individuals interested in learning more about the SDGs, there is a wealth of information available at un.org/sustainabledevelopment and the Sustainable Development Goals Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister is working to contextualise the SDGs for The Bahamas and can be followed at facebook.com/sdgunit242.