This February love and COVID-19 are in the air. With this in mind, we here at the Responsible Sex Education Institute are focusing on breaking up – the one thing everyone goes through but we only really talk about as it’s happening. We experience many different types of break ups in our lives. There’s no right emotion or way to feel after a relationship ends. Any relationship, regardless of length, seriousness, or label can be important and impactful. This is as true for our youth as it is for ourselves.

It’s healthy and normal for what we want and who we are in relationships to change over time. But dealing with rejection is hard, and these feelings may continue resurfacing well into the future, even after any initial reactions pass. We all go through this, but knowing this alone doesn’t necessarily make breaking up any easier. So what would? How do we, as youth serving adults, better prepare our young folks to have the interpersonal skills and resiliency necessary to deal with breakups, rejection, and any of the ensuing emotions? We focus on their rights, their worth, and their responsibilities.

You always have the right to say ‘no.’ 

We do a great job in consent education of emphasizing that yes means yes, or that as we say at Planned Parenthood, consent must be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. love is respect continues in their “Know Your Relationship Rights” handout, that “you have the right to end a relationship that isn’t right or healthy for you.” You always have the right to say ‘no,’ to anything, including the relationship itself.

Helping youth to build up this skill is something many of us are already doing, let’s take a moment to celebrate that! Using and modeling consent, and affirming that a “no,” isn’t just someone not wanting to do something but them expressing their boundaries, helps to stress the importance of our no’s. Instead of just telling a student to read their answer out loud, we ask if they would like to. Many of us before hugging a friend say “can I give you a hug?” giving the people in our lives the option. A group agreement we always use in class is the “right to pass,” meaning you always have the right to say no and opt out of any discussion, activity, or question. Many of us may be familiar with teaching to or working with a Zoom classroom at this point filled with black screens – the right to say ‘no’ to being on camera is another example of this.

In addition to teaching youth that they always have a right to say ‘no’ to anything, it’s important to remind them that they too deserve to have their ‘no’ respected. The first time. Any time. 

For this year’s Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, which also happens to be February, the theme is “Know Your Worth.” Young folks are deserving of relationships and communication that makes them feel seen, safe and comfortable, and that means respecting when they say no. 

As youth serving adults, this is a space we can really work to strengthen. The next time we ask a young person to do something and they say ‘no,’ rather than question their response, react annoyed, or try to sway them any differently, let’s build them up. We can name their ‘no,’ not just as their answer, but as them recognizing and sharing their boundaries. This can be hard to do! So let’s give young folks credit as they do it. “Thank you for letting me know your boundaries, I’ll see if someone else wants to volunteer to read out loud,” we might say, or something along those lines. 

The more we normalize that saying ‘no’ and expressing our boundaries is a healthy and IMPORTANT skill, the more we teach them that their boundaries matter and work to prepare our youth to feel empowered to speak their needs.

The flip side of this coin though is that we also must work to stress their responsibility to hear no, always

This one’s a bit trickier. Because while we often address that only a YES is a yes, it’s equally important that we practice how we respond to and validate the no’s we hear in life. 

So what can we do to support someone’s no? We ask this to middle schoolers at the end of our Refusal Skills lesson. The truth is, they already know the answer – respect it, at face value, each time. Don’t pressure. Don’t question. Supporting someone’s no sounds like thanking them, letting them know we hear and recognize what they’re saying, and responding appropriately. It really isn’t hard. But it does mean learning how to temper our hopes and expectations, prioritizing the comfort, safety, and consent of other people sometimes over our own wants and needs.

It’s okay and normal to feel a sense of disappointment when we hear a ‘no’ from someone we were really hoping we’d get a yes from. But it’s not okay to make them feel bad for it. Things like taking a deep breath before we respond, or even asking for space and time so we can process their rejection before engaging any further can help. While it’s our responsibility to truly hear and validate their ‘no,’ that doesn’t mean we always have to agree with it. And that’s okay! But it’s up to all of us to work towards a culture of consent, which, by nature, is a culture that truly hears, values, and incorporates people’s no’s just as it uplifts our yes’s. 

Breaking up is hard! But we can start working on the skills necessary to make it a little easier, on all of us. This doesn’t mean break ups won’t hurt, but imagine how differently they’d go if we prioritize our right to say no, that we deserve to have our no’s respected, and our responsibility to hear and respect the no’s of others. This is something we can all start now, so maybe when our next break up (whatever it is we’re breaking up from) comes along, we’ll be slightly more prepared to support and affirm people’s wellbeing, consent, and autonomy.

If you’re going through a break up, remember, you’re not alone, and it’s okay if it’s hard (or not!). This is a difficult skill for most everyone. Being real about that with our youth can help set them on a path to be lifelong learners when it comes to growing our skills around rejection. If nothing else, breakups offer us a chance to think about who we are, who we were in the relationship that’s ending, and who we’ll be going forward. So, as always, wear a mask, get consent, and uplift the ways and spaces we all express our wants, needs, and no’s.