Teaching Sexual Safety and Boundary-Setting Skills to Teens and Young Adults

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Teen girls often feel pressured into having sex with their boyfriends. Their partners might use emotional coercion, physical intimidation, and violent assaults to pressure them to be sexual in ways that are against their values, their best interests, or their wishes. Forced sexual activity is a common part of dating or domestic violence.

Even when they want to have sex, young women sometimes feel that they cannot use sexual protection that can help to prevent illness and unwanted pregnancy.  Knowledge, understanding, and skills can prepare young people to take charge of their sexual safety – and to be respectful about intimate relationships.

Cultural Differences

Sexual safety concepts and practices are often different than what people in many social groups and cultures have been used to believing and doing. At the same time, cultures are constantly evolving and are very different in their implementation even within the same community of individuals. The best of all cultures and social groups are those aspects that celebrate, respect, and cherish people. It takes courage to examine what has been done in the past; to preserve what is good from one’s culture and usual ways of doing things; and to make changes to ensure caring, respect and safety for everyone.

What People Need to Know About Sexual Responsibility, Social Pressures, and Protection

People of all ages and abilities, especially teens and young adults, need to know that they have the right and responsibility of protecting themselves from inappropriate or unwanted sexual activity or attention. They need to understand the social pressures that put them at risk of unwanted, unsafe, or inappropriate sexual activity – including:

  • Wanting to be loved or to belong
  • Needing money, food, or shelter
  • Not feeling worthwhile and as if what one does matters
  • Following in the footsteps of poor role models
  • A need to believe in someone even if that person’s behavior is unsafe
  • Believing that they owe sex to someone in order to be respectful

Those who are sexually active need to know how to use protection to prevent unwanted pregnancy and exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They need to know how to insist that this protection is used every time. They need to know how to change their minds if they want to stop being sexual with someone – and how to keep their sense of self worth no matter what anyone tells them about who they are, no matter what mistakes they might have made, and no matter what anyone makes them do.

Making mistakes and being forced or seduced into sexual behavior that was unwanted and unsafe does not make anyone a bad person. However, it is important to find safe people to tell and to know how to get help in order to protect ones self and make safer choices in the future.

Taking Responsibility for Making Safe Decisions

People need to be prepared to stop and think about whether their sexual activity is going to have negative consequences for anyone – by being ashamed later, by loss of reputation, by the risk of sexually transmitted disease, by doing something harmful, or by unwanted pregnancy.

People, especially boys and men, need to understand that they are responsible for not crossing the sexual boundaries of others. It is destructive to force someone to be sexual through emotional coercion, physical threat, bribery with food or other basic needs, social pressure, taking advantage of this person being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or overpowering anyone. It is okay to desire someone – it is not okay to force or seduce that person.

Young men can learn about the special social pressures that cause them to ignore this reality and do things that are destructive for others, including:

  • Having being sexual defined as being manly
  • Having being violent defined as being manly
  • Not knowing how to say “NO” to themselves
  • Lack of empathy
  • Being taught to see women and children as property instead of as important unique individuals
  • Following the example of role models who promote being destructive towards women and children instead of protecting, caring for, and respecting the rights of anyone who might be more vulnerable than one’s self

Young men need role models who they can identify with who help them learn to define being powerful and manly as being caring, protective, restrained and moral in their behavior with everyone.

Both men and women need to learn how to control jealousy, since fear of loss of a relationship can lead to destructive behavior. Some people will deliberately use jealousy to control the sexual behavior of others, forcing them to do things they don’t want to do to prove their love. Jealousy can also lead to dangerous fights and to undermining trust in a relationship.

The Importance of Boundary-Setting Practices

Understanding and knowledge are important, but people also need the chance to develop skills by practicing how to set boundaries to protect their sexual safety. People are far more likely to do what they have rehearsed than what they have been told or what they have just discussed.

Adapt the following simple practices to be relevant to your specific situation. Coach your students (or yourself as your own student) to go step-by-step in order to be successful in doing the practices.

Emotional Safety Skills for Protecting Yourself From Triggers

The term “trigger” comes from what happens when you pull the trigger of a gun—a very small motion causes a potentially destructive explosion. Triggers are thoughts, words, ideas or behavior that cause people to explode with feelings – positive or negative.

When you are exploding with feelings, you cannot think clearly or make wise choices for yourself. It is as if you are on automatic pilot instead of stopping and thinking about what is best for you. Triggers might be someone saying something very nice or very rude, someone looking at you in a certain way, etc. Triggers can cause people to get into fights, give up their power, think they are falling in love, or feel bad about themselves.

First, help students to identify their triggers. If they cannot think of anything right away, pick a few examples that you think would be relevant to them — this might include glaring, insults to their family, lifestyle or self; or being worried that someone is cheating. A positive trigger might be to promise, “I will love you forever!” A negative trigger might be to threaten, “No one will ever want you!” Or, “I’ll cheat on you if you won’t do what I want!”

Use these triggers to help students practice getting centered instead of getting overwhelmed with feelings – have them imagine the triggering situation, wiggle their toes to feel where their feet are, press their hands together or against their bodies to feel where their hands are, take a breath, straighten their backs and look around. These simple movements can help them to get back into their bodies instead of getting caught up in the flood of feelings that come with being triggered.

Next, we want students to protect themselves emotionally by imagining catching and throwing the hurtful words into a trash can or being stopped by an emotional force field. They need to do something active to prevent having these words get stuck into their hearts or their heads, where they can stay for a very long time.

The Trash Can Technique gives students the chance to practice catching and physically throwing hurting words away while saying something good to themselves. We use a real trash can to make the image very concrete. Then we teach students to make a trash can made by putting one arm on a hip to make a hole for the trash and using the other hand to catch the hurting words and put them in the trash while saying something nice to themselves. We also teach how to make a mini-trash can by curling up the fingers on one hand and using the thumb to push hurting words into the hand. The point is to do this practice physically and out loud.

For example, students can catch and throw away hurting words like, “No one will ever love you! They can then tell themselves, “I am proud of who I am.” We use three dramatic motions – catching in the air, throwing the words away, and then pushing the positive words into your heart. We tell students who think this is silly that doing this with their bodies and voices to practice will help them remember to do this with their imaginations out in the real world.

The “That’s Not True” Technique is useful when someone connects a negative judgment to a fact or uses emotional coercion. In response to a statement that does this, students make a fence with their hands and say loudly and proudly, “That’s not true!” A few of the many “That’s Not True” statements include: “You are worthless because your family is poor!” Or, “If you love me, you will do what I want even if it is not safe for you!” Or, “You have to give in to me sexually because I will die if you don’t.” Or, “You are ugly because you look different than a fashion magazine.” Or, “You are so beautiful that I can’t help myself.”

The Walk Away Power Technique is useful if someone is trying to trigger you either positively or negatively into reacting in an unsafe way or shutting down. Students practice walking away with awareness, calm and confidence in response to potentially triggering behavior. Coach students to leave with awareness, calm, and confidence without answering while you say things they might hear in real life such as, “Hey beautiful! I just want to talk to you.”

Ask students what insults they want to practice walking away from. Then, shove them gently, reminding them that you are just pretending for the practice, and say something insulting to them.  Their job is to walk away with awareness, calm and confidence while throwing the words in the trash and saying something nice to themselves.  Use examples that they might have trouble walking away from such as  “Stupid.” Or “Your mother is a __________.”

If you cannot bring yourself to use the actual words that students are hearing (or if you don’t have permission from their adults), say BLEEP and tell them to imagine the worst words they can think of.

Boundaries to Stop Yourself from Being Hurtful to Others

Knowing that you can feel one way and act another is an essential personal safety skill. It is normal to want all kinds of things, but one can learn to stop oneself from doing things that are hurtful to others. Part of this is not getting triggered and getting centered instead.

Another part is deciding on what ones values are and adopting values that promote respect, caring and safety.

A third part is to STOP AND THINK – What is the BEST that will happen if I do this? What is the WORST that will happen? Will anybody get HURT if I do this? Will anybody get into TROUBLE if I do this?

Give students practice by brainstorming different situations that might encounter and assessing SAFE and UNSAFE choices. You can have a face with a Smile on one side of the room and a Frown on the other side of the room and have students go to either the Smile or the Frown as you mention different choices.

The Mouth Closed Power Technique helps us to stop ourselves from saying things that might be hurtful. Have students practice by imagining that someone has said something really upsetting to them. Instead of responding, they can squeeze their lips together and get centered.

The Hands Down Power Technique is useful in stopping ourselves from hitting, shoving, or throwing even if we are really frustrated and is also useful in stopping ourselves from touching something we shouldn’t even if we really feel like it. Have students practice by imagining that they are really angry and want to hit. Coach them to raise their hands as if they are about to hit and then to use all their power to lower their hands down to their sides and imagine their hands are stuck to their sides with superglue.

Next, coach students to imagine that there is something or someone that they REALLY want to touch, but know they shouldn’t. Again, have them practice using their power to put their hands to their sides and keep them there.

Boundaries to Stop Sexual Attention and Behavior

Have students practice saying “NO” and “STOP” and “I am leaving!” in firm strong voices with clear body language and eye contact as you put a hand on their arm or shoulder and they imagine that you might be about to be more intrusive. Give them challenges such as:

Act sad and say, “This means that you don’t love me.”
Teach them to persist and say, “I love you and I do not want you to touch me right now.”

Pretend to cry and say, “You are breaking my heart.”
Teach students to say, “Sorry and stop!”

Act demanding and say, “But you let me do this before!”
Teach them to say, “I have the right to change my mind.”

Offer a bribe that will be meaningful to them and say, “Just act more friendly and I will give you _____.”
Teach them to say, “Stop or I will leave” or “Stop or I will report you.”

Grab students’ arms gently and say in a mean voice, “You have to do what I say or you will get hurt.”
Teach students how to pull away and shout, “NO! STOP! I NEED HELP!”

Have students run yelling, “I NEED HELP!” to a support person who is saying, “I will help you.”

Boundaries to Insist on Sexual Protection

Make sure that sexually active students know how to use sexual protection correctly.
Have students sitting and imagining that they are about to be intimate with someone. Have them practice saying, “First we need to use protection.”

Pretend to object and make emotionally coercive statements like, “That’s no fun!” Or, “If you trusted me, you would not make me use protection.” Or, “Don’t worry. We’ll just be really careful.”

Teach students to stand up and walk away while saying, “If you cared about ME, you would want to be careful and use protection!”

Offer a bribe that would be meaningful to the students and say, “Oh please. Just this one time! It’s safe, honest! I will give you _______ if you will just do what I want.”

Teach students to walk away and say, “Sorry, no.”

Pretend to be threatening by taking each student’s arm and saying, ‘YOU HAVE TO!”

Have students practice yelling, pulling away, leaving and getting to safety.

Being Persistent in Getting Help

Teach students how to identify who are people they can to go to for help and how to find these people. We want them to make a safety plan for everywhere they go and for every kind of problem they might have with other people. Make a list of places and discuss the kinds of problems that come up. Brainstorm about how to decide who to go to for help, including how well someone listens, how much someone knows, how much authority someone has, and how caring someone might be.

Have students practice being persistent in asking for help. Tell students to imagine that you are someone who cares and who could be in a position to help, but who is overwhelmed, too busy, or just doesn’t want to get involved at first. Ask students to tell you who might be people they’d want to go to, but who they are worried might not care or might get upset and not listen. Ask them to tell you in what ways this person might be busy and then act busy.

Coach the students to interrupt and say, “Excuse me. I need help.”

Say something discouraging and impatient, such as, “I don’t have time for any nonsense right now!”

Coach students to persist and say, “I see you’re busy and I am sorry to bother you, but I really need help.”

Say in an irritated way, “What is it?”

Coach students to prepare someone who might get upset by saying, “I have something difficult to tell you and I really need your help, so please stay calm and listen.”

Act upset. Wring your hands or act angry and say, “Oh, no! What have you done!??”

Coach students to tell their story about what happened and why they need help. Have them practice staying very centered even if the adult acts very angry, blaming, or sad.

Conclude on a positive note by saying, “I am glad you told me, even though I am upset that this happened. You are very important to me and we are going to figure out what to do.”

Tell students that, if the person they go to for help gets upset or does not listen, they might say, “Let’s talk about this later when you are calm. I really need your help and I know you care about me.

Please listen.” Tell them that they deserve to have support if they have a problem and, if one person does not help them, to keep looking until they find someone who will give them the help they need.

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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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