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College sex: What parents need to know

Elizabeth Weiss McGolerick is a freelance writer and editor who contributes regularly to SheKnows, MintLife, AOL, iVillage and other sites. In her articles, Elizabeth covers a variety of subjects including relationships, pregnancy, paren...

The lowdown on hooking up

For parents who worry about their child’s newfound sexual freedom at college, here are ways to cope, connect, understand and, most importantly, know when to let go.

College students making out

For many co-eds, college sex is a social rite of passage. They're leaving home and family for the first time, and that dangling carrot of ultimate freedom is finally within their grasp. Eighteen-year-olds can't wait to be unsupervised, without a curfew and with the freedom and opportunity to experiment, sexually or otherwise. Here's how to handle your child's newfound freedom.

The right to experiment

College is a time of discovery. Young adults are figuring out who they are and who they want to become. Sexual choices fit into that equation. Though your child won't be sharing every decision with you, and you may not agree with all the choices he makes, these differences of opinion are a sign that you're doing something right.

"Parental involvement and support are much more effective when they foster psychological separation and independence. The adolescent needs to feel secure and safe enough to explore different roles, beliefs and values," says Ricardo Rieppi, PhD, a licensed psychologist in New York City. "It's imperative that parents allow their adolescents to struggle, make their choices and deal with the consequences, learn from errors and find solutions along the way."

Modern-day definitions

If you familiarize yourself with the lingo your child uses and the situations with which she's dealing, you'll be more likely to appreciate the temptations, peer pressure and ramifications they're encountering away at college. You'll also be better equipped to support her in her trials, successes and heartbreaks.

Some common terms your college student will be using:

  • Hooking up -- This describes some kind of sexual act, ranging from kissing to intercourse. "The ambiguity is often exploited by people who want to appear to have done more or less sexually than they actually did," says Michael Bruce, a writer and instructor who works with at-risk youth in San Francisco and is co-editor of College Sex: Philosophy for Everyone.
  • Walk of shame -- "The 'walk' consists of walking home the morning after hooking up while still wearing the party attire from the previous night," says Bruce. "Due to women's clothing on party nights -- or lack thereof -- women are more easily identified and subjected to moral ridicule [than men]."
  • Friends with benefits (FWB) -- FWBs is an informal agreement in which two people agree have sex with each other with few or no strings attached, Bruce explains. "Youth commonly 'do not want to be in a relationship right now' or 'want to enjoy being young and single.' A friend with benefits meets many of their needs with less stress and commitment than a traditional relationship."
  • Booty call -- This refers to a sexual partner who is contacted strictly to engage in a sexual act. A FWB can get "booty called," but not all booty calls involve FWBs. "Booty calls are partners who lack the friend aspect and are usually not one's first choice," says Bruce. For example, if someone is determined to hook up on Saturday night and has failed to meet a viable prospect, he may contact his booty call in a last-ditch effort to save the evening.

Have more than just one talk

Now that you have a better perspective on what your co-ed is dealing with at college, remember: No matter how young or old he is, it's never too early or too late to show your child that you support him. After all, he is experiencing freshman jitters that match your parental anxiety -- combinations of excitement, joy, anxiety, sadness, pride, and loss, says Rieppi. He's still going to need Mom and Dad from time to time. So let your child know that you're ready and willing to discuss any questions or concerns about sex and will respect his point of view. You're both embarrassed about these talks, but he will be unwilling to share if he fears being judged, so do your best to create a comfortable environment and open dialog.

"Given that most college students drop out because of personal difficulties in adjusting to the new setting, parents must provide their children with the necessary tools to manage the new transition," Rieppi explains. "Providing an accepting and empathic stance is important and is more likely to create open, trusting communication."

While this kind of environment is best created at home before college begins, establishing an honest back-and-forth between you and your child at some point -- even the week before your teen officially becomes a college freshman -- officially opens the lines of communication so your child will know she can turn to you no matter what goes wrong with her college relationships.

"Parents should discuss the responsibilities and consequences of sex, such as protection and sexually transmitted diseases. Parents cannot control their adolescents' behavior; they can only help their children consider the pros and cons and take responsibility for their choices and actions," Rieppi says.

Though you may not approve of your child's sexual choices, knowing that you have done all that you can as a parent to remove the taboo around youth and sexuality and to create an ongoing dialog about sex will help you foster a knowledgeable, respectful and safety-minded co-ed, says Bruce.

More on "hooking up"

Friends with benefits: What you should know

What exactly is a "friend with benefits?" Is there a way to hook up casually and still keep a friendship strong? Explore this phenomenon with Dr. Joy Davidson.

More college tips for parents

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