It’s natural to want what’s best for your children and to witness the young people raised by or around you grow into healthy, thriving adults. But we all know from personal experience that adolescence can be a challenging time full of physical and emotional changes, peer pressure, and risky behavior.
As a parent and former social worker, I understand the importance of supporting youth during their challenging teenage years. I’ve seen and heard how difficult it can be to navigate this landscape, and today’s kids face even more obstacles than previous generations. From the rise of cyberbullying to the ongoing attack on sexual and reproductive rights, young people must deal with a range of issues that threaten their health and well-being— that’s where we step in.
May is National Adolescent Health Month, an opportunity for adults to be advocates and allies, and acknowledge youth’s essential role in building our communities and shaping the future. It is critical that we, as parents and caregivers, prioritize their health by taking an active role in supporting them to make informed choices. Here are five ways we can provide the environment and support that young people need to achieve optimal health:
Prioritize mental health
Teens can feel misunderstood and dismissed when they try to express their internal struggles to adults, especially when told that they’re being dramatic or over-the-top as a response. We can break the stigma around mental health and show support by actively listening, reassuring them that their feelings are valid, and connecting them with counseling resources and mental health services.
Create a safe space to talk about sexual and reproductive health
Building relationships and creating comfortable environments can help encourage young people to ask questions and seek accurate information on sexual and reproductive health from adults they trust. According to TeenSource, an adolescent health and equity promotion program, over two-thirds of teens in focus groups reported never receiving “the talk” from parents or caregivers. Conversations about health should be ongoing discussions and go beyond the topic of the birds and the bees. It is also important to address topics such as consent, healthy relationships, body image, and diverse sexual identities and experiences.
Discuss and model consent
Consent is essential in all aspects of life, especially regarding sexual health and relationships. We must teach young people the importance of respecting boundaries, asking for consent, and being aware of power dynamics. As advocates of youth, we should set examples and model consent in our interactions with others to help them understand healthy relationships and what they should look like.
Protect access to services and information
We must fight to ensure that teens have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, including contraception, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, and treatment. Moreover, we must equip them with the knowledge and skills to navigate the healthcare system and connect to care when needed. Programs like TeenSource help provide a safe space for young people to amplify their voices and seek answers to questions regarding care, sexual health, relationships, and other topics. To learn more, visit teensource.org.
Promote health and safety if sexually active
Sexual activity is a natural part of adolescent development. In addition to ensuring access to services and information, we can support youth in making informed decisions about sexual health by encouraging the use of condoms and other forms of contraception to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancies. We can also promote the importance and safety of the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to prevent cancer and other health problems that can impede their future.
Supporting adolescent health requires a community effort. We have a vital role in creating a supportive and empowering environment for teens. Let’s work together to ensure that all adolescents have the information, resources, and support they need to be healthy and thrive. For more information on how to communicate openly with youth, visit talkwithyourkids.org.
Nomsa Khalfani, Ph.D., is Co-CEO of Essential Access Health, a non-profit organization that champions health equity and quality sexual and reproductive health care for all through a broad range of programs and services.