When approached with the idea that case workers will “have to” address topics of sexuality and reproduction with young people, some believe that their parents, caregiver, church leader or other trusted adult should be the one they have those conversations with. And, it’s true that ideally, conversations about sex would happen with trusted adult. Because young people who have an adult connection delay initiation of sexual activity, and have safer sex overall (citation).
Realistically, case workers aren’t always that trusted person, which is okay. We still need to provide the basic information about their rights, and help them access the information and services that best fit their specific needs. But, for following up and deeper conversations, it is great to encourage reaching out to those trusted adults.
• If the youth has a trusted adult, use your role to confirm that the information they are giving the youth is medically accurate and complete and then reinforce it. If it isn’t accurate or complete, then you can correct or expand on what they’ve been told.
• If the youth doesn’t have anyone, you can use your role to provide accurate and complete information and to help them identify who they can talk to and how they might approach them
Some folks teach how to TALK to youth about sex, but this begins and ends with you giving the young person some information. That’s it. Which is important, but there is more to do in order for that information to be understood and retained.
We want to ENGAGE WITH youth about sex. This means—
• AT LEAST as much listening as talking, usually a lot more
• Responding thoughtfully with appropriate resources and information
• Asking questions and checking for comprehension—don’t just check their comprehension, check your own as well. It can often be helpful to repeat back to them what you think they are saying to be sure YOU understand
• Following up on previous conversations or referrals
• Listening some more
• Being reliable and consistent is how trust is built
• Having gentle and compassionate curiosity about what youth are experiencing, what they need and want related to their sexual and reproductive wellness
• Then listen some more again
• The potential positive effects of this deeper engagement can be enormous
Setting Up the Conversation
The setting and conditions within which these important conversations take place can make all the difference in whether a young person feels safe, can take in new information, is comfortable enough to ask questions, etc.
• Remove distractions—privacy and no cell phones
• Focus and be present—try not to take notes during the conversation unless you do so together
• Outline what you expect from the conversation, for example, explain that you will:
• Address any items the youth may have on their agenda as well, don’t just talk about what you need to talk about. Ask if there is anything you didn’t cover that they are curious about. Don’t force youth to interrupt you if they have questions or concerns, make explicit room for their voice.
Your Approach Matters
Avoid treating this conversation as a mandatory task
• Don’t say “Now I have to tell you about your rights.”
• Try “I am invested in your safety and well-being, and sexuality is part of that.”
• Try “You have rights as a human being and specific rights as a young person in foster care. Let’s go over them together.”
Take your time and allow space for questions
During the Conversation
• Avoid jargon, slang, and overly medical terminology
-Be yourself, and check for mutual understanding
• Use inclusive language
-Avoid using gendered language until the youth does
-Instead of asking about a boyfriend or girlfriend, say “Are you seeing anyone?” or “Do you have a crush on anyone?”
• If you don’t know, just ask
-“I’ve never heard that term before, what does it mean?”
-“What pronouns would you like me to use?”
• Listen. Listen. Listen. Pay attention to the young person and their body language, what may be behind a certain question, if they are talking about someone else it may actually be them or their partner.
• Use open-ended questions—start with “What” “How” “When” or “Tell me about”
• Avoid “Why” to keep clear of blaming or shame
• Try third person phrasing “Some people your age…”
• Ask follow-up or clarifying questions
• Repeat what you’ve heard them say to check that you understand
Acknowledge positive behaviors and strengths—particularly safer sex, healthy boundaries, etc.
Young people are competent to decide about their bodies and their sexuality
Self-determination and harm reduction are important
• What does a healthy sex life look like to you?
• What are the issues of most importance to you?
• Are you worried about anything related to sex or your body? What about in your relationship?
• What do you want?
• What do you need to get what you want and be well?