Hooking Up : Parents Are Worried About The Wrong Thing

Hooking up is a term that means everything and nothing. For teens and young adults it is a way of saying something happened while leaving the specifics unstated, for parents it is a term that denotes a baffling world of uber-casual sex over-fueled by alcohol and potentially a cause for real concern. We worry while they are in high school, but hope that by staying close we can impact their behavior. We worry a whole lot more as they head off to college where both parents and teens have heard that hooking up has replaced dating to be the dominant route to “romance.”

New report from Harvard discusses college students and hooking up

Hooking up at college

New research from the Making Caring Common part of the Harvard School of Education, suggests that parent’s worries are sorely misplaced.

The findings of this multi-year long study of over 3,000 young adults and high school students suggest that kids are hooking up far less than we (and they) think. Sure, there are some teens and college students who thrive on impersonal or casual sexual encounters but this new report finds that this is “far from the norm.”

Here are some of the facts about hooking up straight from the report:

We asked students in our sample about their ideal Friday night and gave them the following choices: sex in a serious relationship, sex with a friend, sex with a stranger, hooking up (but not sex), going on a date or spending time with a romantic partner, hanging out with friends, spending time alone, or something else. About 16% chose an option related to casual sex. The remaining respondents (84%) reported either wanting to have sex in a serious relationship or chose an option that did not involve sex.

According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 27% of 18 to 19-year-olds nationally had more than one sexual partner in the previous year, and only 8% had four or more partners. [our comment: suggesting that 65% had one or zero partners the previous year, a fact that does not square with most teens perceptions]

Yet the fact that this myth has taken hold has damaging consequences. The media highlights the “hook-up culture” and on college campuses students hear the stories. Young people who are not choosing casual sex can be made to feel as though they are out of step with their peers when the truth is that their behavior is far more typical. And parents, concerned about the uncertain implications of hooking up, may be failing to focus on what is important to our teens, teaching them about what will really matter in their lives, namely, to how develop “caring, healthy romantic relationships.” Finding and nurturing such relationships will be one of the keys to their adult happiness yet, as parents, we spend frighteningly little time showing them how this might be done.

Here is the good news, the vast majority of teens and college kids WANT some guidance, and insight from their parents or teachers on the emotional aspects of their romantic relationships. They want to talk about falling in and out of love, how to get along in a serious relationship and how to communicate within it. They want us to share what we have learned and listen to their questions and worries.

Here is what the report’s experts suggest can be done:

Spend time talking to your teen about the importance of mature, reciprocal relationships based on respect and trust and explain how this differs from other forms of intense attraction.

Talk about what makes a relationship “healthy” or not. Ask your teen to think about whether the relationship makes both partners better and more compassionate people. Is each partner listening to and supporting the other? Describe explicitly what some of the red flags in an “unhealthy” relationship looks like.

Talk about sexual assault, its dangers and what your teen can do to prevent or stop it in any given situation. While most parents are fully aware of the many risks that exist on college campuses, this report suggest that many of us do not delve into this topic with our sons and daughters.

Speak up when you see your teen in a relationship that looks destructive or degrading. Our silence can be misconstrued to be permission or approval. While teens are very much entitled to privacy, they are also still learning to be adults and in this role we have much to offer.


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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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