Talking with Your Student about Healthy Relationships

by Angela Barian

Two students lie in the grass holding hands among the flowering trees and fresh blossoms at the Longenecker Horticulture Gardens.
Experts agree that humans are wired for intimacy, connection, and care for others. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

As parents, you may be concerned about your college student’s finances, grades, or future career success. You may routinely talk to your student about the risks of taking on debt. You probably have ongoing discussions with your students about their major. You may even check in regularly and ask about their mental health and stress levels. But one area that many parents are reluctant to discuss with their students is intimate relationships.

On the one hand, students themselves may be unenthusiastic about the prospect of talking with their parents about personal matters. On the other hand, parents may think they’ve long since done their part by giving “the talk” when their students were younger. They’re adults now, goes the thinking, so what is there left to say?

Plenty, according to UW experts. “Intimacy is an essential human need,” says Linda J. Roberts, Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) in the School of Human Ecology. “We are ‘wired’ for connection.” And college, with all its transitions and change, may be an especially challenging time for students to navigate intimacy. “We’ve found that the number one concern new students have here is, will I belong,” says Roberts. “Students can feel lonely even if surrounded by other people if they don’t have the security that comes from feeling they belong and have close relationships.”

“Everyone Has A Role to Play”

But just because the need for intimacy is biological, that doesn’t mean we automatically know what to do: “Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t provide many ‘scripts’ about how to do emotional intimacy,” says Roberts. “We all long for it yet may not even know what it is!” So, what is intimacy, anyway? “[It’s] the experience of being really known, appreciated and cared for by a close other,” Roberts says. “We feel free to be vulnerable and reveal feelings and thoughts we hold close to our heart with an intimate other.” Roberts says that it’s through connection with others that we find meaning.

In fact, all of our UW experts agreed that intimate relationships are shaped by factors well beyond the individuals in that relationship. University Health Services’s Molly Zemke, Violence Prevention Manager, and Amanda Jovaag, Director of Prevention and Campus Health Initiatives, say that as public health practitioners, they are especially focused on how relationships, communities, and the systems and institutions we navigate every day shape our lives. “We stress that everyone has a role to play in the public’s health,” Zemke says. “This is why so much of UHS programming is universal, for all students.”

Cabell Hankinson Gathman, Lecturer in the Gender & Women’s Studies department, takes a similar approach when she teaches one of the department’s most respected (and beloved) courses, “Gender, Women, Bodies & Health.” In the course, Gathman stresses that people’s most intimate experiences are shaped by social forces: “I try to emphasize to students that there is a wide range… There are certainly common experiences that people don’t talk about a lot publicly, and it’s helpful to let folks know they’re not alone.”

“Some Things That Are Common Shouldn’t Be”

Gathman stresses, however, that common intimate experiences don’t always mean positive ones. In her class, she tells students, “something doesn’t have to be common to be okay for you—and some things that are common shouldn’t be!” Unfortunately, one of those experiences that is all-too common in colleges across the country is sexual assault, harassment, and intimate-partner violence. Jovaag notes that up to a third of all undergraduate women in the U.S. experience sexual assault. Gathman adds that we also need to remember that boys and men can also be pressured and assaulted. “The way that we talk about sexual violence often communicates either directly or indirectly that only women can be victims,” Gathman says. “We need to be clear in everyday conversation that men can and do say no to sexual interactions and their consent matters.”

To help UW–Madison students of all genders navigate issues of decision-making, consent, and relationships, Jovaag and Zemke note that UHS provides incoming students with a number of workshops. One of those is GetWIse, which first-year and new transfer students must attend within their first semester on campus. These interactive workshops cover a range of issues and experiences, including healthy sexuality and relationships, how to support a survivor, and bystander intervention. There are also workshops throughout the semester specifically designed for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, transfer students, and student survivors of sexual or relationship violence.

Workshops like these are important, since a major factor that affects students’ experiences is simply the social and developmental landscape of the college student: “This age is a risky time,” Jovaag says. “Not just the setting, but the time in a person’s life. Your network of relationships is expanding. It’s also many people’s first time experimenting with drinking culture. This is important because we know that alcohol is the number-one ‘date rape drug.’ That is to say, alcohol plays the most substantial role here and everywhere in terms of sexual assault incidence,” says Jovaag.

To that end, UHS offers bystander training, which is designed to increase knowledge of warning signs that something is wrong, corrects common misperceptions in social norms of behavior, and teaches skills to intervene. Called ActWIse, the training takes a community-based approach: “…bystander intervention assumes that everyone has a stake in reducing sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment to make our campus safer.” In other words, as Jovaag says, “It’s important to have everyone look out for each other.”

“Open Up Conversation”

With all of this in mind, how can parents and family members maintain solid communication with their student, while navigating what can sometimes feel like very choppy waters? Our UW experts have a wealth of tips and ideas to help:

Start Early

First, “it’s a lot easier to have an ongoing conversation than to suddenly start one when you have a specific concern,” Gathman says, “so I would say talk about this sooner rather than later.” One tip to begin, offered by Jovaag, is to ask about the GetWIse workshops: “A good conversation starter can be to mention that you heard about the workshop, and simply ask, ‘what did you learn there?’ This can really open up conversation with your student,” Jovaag says.

Be Curious and Open-Minded

“If your student hasn’t been very open with you about their relationships yet,” Roberts says, “one approach is to get them talking about the general culture of dating on campus:  Is ‘dating’ or ‘going out’ a thing that you all do these days?  How does that go? Tell me more. We used to call it going steady when we became exclusive with a romantic partner—what do students call it these days?” Roberts says that parents can spark curiosity by asking questions about the “scene” and “gently turning” to examples from their life, if students don’t do that on their own.

Jovaag agrees: “Be open and curious, ask questions, and listen nonjudgmentally,” she says, adding that it’s a good idea to try to remember that decision making at this point in your student’s life is a partnership: “I’m a parent of a 14-year-old, so in a lot of ways I understand these transitions,” says Jovaag. “To go from, put on your shoes, to, I noticed you don’t have your shoes. What do you think we should do about that? That itself is a transition!”

Encourage Your Student to Get Educated

In addition to the UHS workshops mentioned above, UW­–Madison offers a number of courses students can take that cover issues of intimacy, relationships, bodies, sexuality, and human connection. For example, Roberts mentions Sociology/Psychology 160: Human Sexuality, Human Development and Family Studies 517: Couple Relationships,  and the aforementioned Gender & Women’s Studies 103: Gender, Women, Bodies, & Health. Roberts says students can search the course search & enroll app for keywords like relationships and sexuality to find something interesting to them.

Make Referrals When Necessary

If you suspect your student may be struggling, or just want to get ahead of any potential issues, you can refer your student to campus resources. “Counseling for example,” Roberts says. “Take the stigma away — encourage them to seek counseling, or other support programs on campus. Make it okay. Normal. The services are free, after all. How often does that happen? Take advantage,” Roberts says.

Gathman adds, “on campus, Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment (PAVE) provides resources and education about relationship violence and healthy relationships.”

Gathman also encourages her students to check out programming at the Gender & Sexuality Campus Center. “LGBTQ+ students need to see themselves clearly reflected in these materials in order to fully benefit,” says Gathman.

And if you have general questions, aren’t sure where to go, or just need some help, don’t forget the Dean of Students Office. It’s staffed with experts whose entire job is to support students. They work directly with students and parents and can connect them to the appropriate resources on campus.

Remember You Are Still Important

Despite all the transition in the parent-student relationship during the college years, our experts say that parents still play a vital role in their student’s lives. And you can feel good about sharing your values with your student: “Being honest and sharing values, students take that very well,” Jovaag says. “In fact, our research shows parents are actually a stronger part of their college students’ lives than ever before. Parents are very much seen by students as a positive resource, well into the college years.”

“A Really Good Sign”

Even though it can be awkward at first, all of our UW experts agreed that more conversation is better. With that in mind, UW–Madison is offering more opportunities than ever before to learn, share, and understand together how to build and foster healthier, happier intimate relationships that allow Badgers to thrive: “All the things we offer didn’t even exist when I was that age. There were no major conversations around these issues then. But now, we have all these opportunities and conversations on campus, with family, and with friends,” Zemke says. “It’s a really good sign.”