Spotlight on Women's Health

Kayla Smith

An Interview About Talking to Teens About Healthy Relationships and Sex: Kayla Smith

June 22, 2016

College can be an exciting time for teens. It's full of new experiences, like managing schoolwork, social events, and new friends on their own. The things you teach your teen can make the transition to college easier, especially when it comes to relationships. Your guidance can help them make healthy decisions — even if you're not physically there with them.

We talked with Kayla Smith, a peer health educator, to get her tips for helping college-bound teens make smart choices about sex and relationships. She talks about dating on campus, how parents can help teens prepare for dating away from home, and how teens can talk to their partners about sex.

Kayla Smith is currently studying health education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is a peer health educator, Bedsider U college representative, and chair of the sexual health committee on campus. Most recently, Kayla received the Black Girls Rock Community Activist award from Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. for her dedication to raising awareness of sexual and mental health.

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Q: You're a peer health educator on your college campus. What does that mean?

A: As a peer health educator, my peers and I teach classes on health topics ranging from mental health to sexual health and healthy relationships. We run programs and events on campus for groups of all sizes. Our goal is to increase awareness and share information in a fun and interactive way with as many students as possible. For example, we host a "What the Health Is Going On?" program, which is like a game of Jeopardy but with health questions. Each team gets a buzzer and we give out prizes. The programs are engaging and fun and the audience gets lots of important information.

Q: As girls prepare to go to college, what do you think they should know about dating on campus?

A: Don't let anyone push your boundaries, and be clear with yourself about what they are. Make sure you don't compromise your values, point of view, and feelings for the sake of someone else in hopes that they'll like you or accept you. Don't let any one person make you feel like there's something wrong with who you are or what you're doing.

Q: How can parents help their teens prepare for dating in college?

A: Make sure that you have done everything you can to empower your teen so you're sending them off to college with confidence as an adult. You can help your teen learn what to expect from others and what's not okay. If they know who they are and what they want, I think they are more likely to speak up when something doesn't feel right.

Q: What's your advice for parents who may be nervous about talking to their teens about sex?

A: Did anyone talk to you about sex and relationships before you went to off to college? If not, think about how helpful it might have been for you. Think about how much more prepared you might have been. Talking about sex might be uncomfortable at first, but in the long run, it's better to be safe (and uncomfortable) than sorry. I think that when parents talk to their teens about sex, teens feel more confident about making decisions that are right for them. What you think and say matters to your teen.

Q: What would you say to parents and teens about campus sexual assault?

A: Sexual assault on college campuses is never easy to talk about, but it's incredibly important for your teen to go off to college with all the facts. Before you send your teen to college, talk to them about it. Let them know that women are at higher risk for sexual assault. If your daughter is going out, encourage her to use the buddy system or a safety app such as Circle of 6.

Discuss consent and respecting others. Here are the basics: No always means no. It's always best to wait for an enthusiastic yes. Far too often, we hear from students who don't know that if their partner is drunk, sex is out of the question.

This brings up another topic — alcohol and drugs on campus. Encourage your teen to use good judgment and understand their limits. Also, empower them to offer help to other students and intervene, if possible, if they are a bystander to wrongdoing. If something looks off to them, it probably is.

Q: What can parents do to help their teens feel empowered to talk to their partners about sex?

A: The more you communicate with your teen, the easier it will be for them to communicate with their partners. If they are used to talking about sex with important people in their lives, they will be more comfortable in college talking to their partners about sex. Just by being open and honest with your teen, you show them that they can be open and honest with other people in their lives.

For me, having more information about sex has made it easier to explain what I want and what I'm looking for when I talk to my partner. The more we talk about sex, the less taboo talking about it becomes.

Q: What should women know about preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs or STIs)?

A: A lot of people know they should be having protected sex, but I don't think enough people know they should be getting tested for HIV and other STIs — even when they aren't showing symptoms. Women especially tend to be asymptomatic, meaning there are no signs that anything is wrong, so talk to a doctor about getting tested.

It's also important to remember that your partner may not have symptoms. You can't always tell if someone has STIs just by looking at them, so you never know if you are being exposed to STIs. You and your partner should both know your status before you engage in any sexual activities.

Being prepared to have safe sex is mental as well as physical. For STI and pregnancy prevention, make sure you have condoms and a PDF - Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader more effective method of birth control (PDF, 914 KB). Whatever method you use, make sure you use it as directed. In case something goes wrong with your method, it's always good to have a backup plan and know where you can get emergency contraception, like Plan B. Sex can be fun and silly and feel really great, but if you aren't ready or comfortable, it's perfectly okay to wait. Remember, sex shouldn't be painful, and it shouldn't feel wrong.

Q: Where can parents send their teen daughters for answers about healthy relationships and safe sex?

A: Bedsider is an amazing resource for all things sex. I work with them closely as a campus representative, which means that I'm the point person on campus for any Bedsider events and programs we host. Everything they offer on their website is incredibly helpful. They have information on different birth control options, ways to set up daily pill reminders, and feature stories covering everything from STIs to sex to fun horoscopes.

You can also check out girlshealth.gov for information on healthy relationships and Know The Facts Firstfor ways to protect yourself from STIs.

Q: What resources are often available to students on their college campuses?

A: Free clinics for STI testing and flu shots sometimes pop up on my campus. I know lots of campuses offer free condoms and dental dams.

Get more tips for starting the conversation with your teen. We also have information on healthy relationships and STI prevention for teens.

See before and after video examples of parents tackling difficult topics with teens and preteens.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.