As a parent, you might assume that your teen knows what a “good” relationship looks like and how to develop one. Not only do teens need to learn about “violence-free” relationships, but what it takes to engage in healthy relationships. It takes information, awareness, and the attention of parents to ensure their children know what a healthy relationship is.
Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
A healthy relationship includes more than feelings of love, passion, affection, and shared likes and dislikes. Parents and other adults can engage teens in discussing the following characteristics of healthy relationships:
- Give and take: both partners get their way some of the time and compromise some of the time
- Respect: valuing one another’s opinions and accepting each other for who they are
- Support and encourage: being positive with each other’s goals, ambitions, friendships, and activities outside the relationship
- Trust, without jealous restrictions
- Emotionally and physically safe: feeling comfortable being themselves without the fear of being put down or hurt
- Communicate openly and honestly, and allowing partners feel safe in expressing themselves
As your child goes through stages of adolescence, you have an important role to play in your teen’s ability to have good relationships with peers and intimate partners. Parents evolve from being “managers” who are actively in charge of almost everything in their child’s life, to “consultants” who provide an important connection, along with values, information, and feedback, supporting their children’s increasing abilities to make decisions for themselves.
Encourage your teen to think about his or her relationships, both present and future, by discussing healthy relationships, pointing out features of relationships they see in books and movies, and opening a dialogue so they can think about what they want in a boyfriend or girlfriend. This will help them to identify differences between relationships that are built on respect and those that are not.
Parents can be great resources for teens with open communication, being aware and informed, fostering good self-esteem and empowerment, encouraging assertiveness, talking about sensitive and volatile issues with teens, and respecting their opinions and emotions.
One of the most effective ways of teaching a child about healthy relationships is to model positive qualities in your own relationships. Even if you think your teen is not listening to your conversations with your partner, they often are.
Guidelines for Conversations with Teens
Create opportunities for discussion by “showing up” in a relaxed manner when you know your teen is available: hang out with them at night, or drive someplace together. Or you can ask your teen questions about something they read or saw, and take interest in your teen’s opinion. It is important for parents to include same sex couples in their discussions, to let teens know that these issues are important for all relationships.
Parents can take advantage of “teachable moments” when the subject of relationships comes up. For example, after watching a movie together, ask about the relationship in the movie and what they think worked and didn’t work. When they see something in the media about famous actors or sports figures, discuss those relationships. If there is a situation involving someone they know, chat with your teen about what he or she thinks about the situation.
Open-ended questions can start a conversation with teens. Use these opportunities to have a relaxed dialogue about different points of view. Here are some examples of open-ended questions to ask:
- “What do you think about [a situation in a TV show….]?”
- “I saw your friend at the mall with her boyfriend. How do you think their relationship is going?”
- “What if your date drinks at a party and wants to drive you home? How would you handle that?”
- “Did you notice how different guys treated [a woman in a movie you watched together]? Which guy do you think did the right thing and why?”
Teen relationships provide a way to experiment and practice for future long-term relationships and marriages. Talking with your teen about what they are looking for in their relationships will help him or her develop healthy relationship skills, and teach them differences between unhealthy, abusive behavior and healthy behavior. Then your teen will begin to understand what it takes to be a healthy relationship partner: to be treated with respect and to treat others with respect.
About the authors:
Barrie Levy and Patti Giggans are co-authors of When Dating Becomes Dangerous: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Relationship Abuse. Patti is the executive director of Peace Over Violence, and blogs regularly for The Joyful Heart Foundation, which was founded by Mariska Hargitay from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Barrie, a violence prevention specialist, is the editor of Dating Violence, a collection of writings about adolescent dating abuse and violence.