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February 22, 2024

Supporting Healthy Relationships for Teens

The development of romantic relationships is a natural occurrence for many teenagers. Romantic interest in peers is both natural and normal and should be considered by parents of children entering their teenage years. However, adolescents are not naturally equipped with the knowledge and skills to navigate intimate relationships and make appropriate and healthy choices. Parents play a key role in the facilitation of these abilities. While sex and dating can be an uncomfortable topic for parents to approach with their kids, openness, honesty, and age-appropriate information will make a huge difference in their children’s abilities to form healthy relationships. Below are some strategies to help parents navigate this.

Be Open: Let your child know early that they can come to you with any problem, big or small. Ensure that they understand that your love is unconditional. When your child comes to you with a conflict, help them reflect without being accusatory or getting too emotional. Children and teens should know that their parents are safe people to turn to when looking for guidance and support.

Review family values, culture, and religious beliefs. The discussion around relationships cannot occur in a vacuum. Families have certain values, cultural, and religious influences. These should be considered and reviewed as part of your discussion about relationships. If your religious beliefs, for example, teach certain practices around sexual relationships, this should be reviewed as a family. However, it is important to always remind your child that if they were to behave in a manner that is outside of these practices that you want them to be open and honest with you, and you, as the parent, will make every effort to be supportive. The goal here is not to socially isolate your child and make them feel that their support structure will breakdown or not be available if they sway from certain core beliefs. Also, you want to be clear on any boundaries or parameters you want to put in place as a parent. One common example is being in a bedroom behind closed doors. It is important communicate this proactively as to what your expectations are as a parent. Ultimately, however, the parent must recognize that even if their teenager respects this boundary, they may find ways to circumvent this rule. This is why it is so important to be open with your discussions around relationships, which is explored in more detail in the next section.

Have Conversations- Even the Uncomfortable Ones!: The seeds for healthy relationships are sowed earlier in child development than one might expect. Children should have ongoing and developmentally appropriate discussions about their bodies and relationships. For example:

  • Toddlers and young children benefit from being taught the correct terminology for their “private parts” to ensure that they are able to accurately communicate any concerns and less likely to associate shame with their bodies.
  • Children should be taught very early that certain parts of their body are absolutely private and have discussions about exceptions such as baths and doctors’ visits.
  • Children’s bodily autonomy can be introduced early by allowing kids to say “no” to unnecessary physical contact with others. This sets up the foundation for boundaries in intimate relationships.
  • Children benefit from being taught about puberty before it begins. Medically accurate information can be provided without judgement so that they are prepared for this transitional phase in life and feel comfortable turning to their parents with any concerns. Many children feel shame around their changing bodies, and they should be reminded that puberty is normal and natural.
  • As adolescents get older, you may begin discussing sex and other related topics. Parents have the ability to help them understand the physical and emotional risks of sex with honesty. Sometimes as parents, we may second guess ourselves on “how much information is too much information?” A great question to follow up with when presented with a relatively intimate/sensitive topic is, “what do you know about it?” This question helps parents establish a baseline for what their child already knows/believes, and allows the parent the space to build off on this information appropriately or correct it if needed.
  • Throughout childhood, reflect upon your and your children’s relationships. Point out evidence of trust, loyalty, kindness, and respect. As kids get older, parents can begin to have open and honest conversations about acceptable qualities in romantic relationships.

Model Appropriate Conflict Resolution: Parents can try to be mindful of the way they react when faced with conflict in the home. Work on emotional regulation and model appropriate communication. Praise your child when they approach conflict appropriately.

Check in Frequently: If your child has begun a romantic relationship, check in with them about it often. Ask your child how they are being treated and listen with your full attention. If you are concerned, let them know your concerns.

Monitor Social Media: There are a lot of benefits of monitoring younger children’s online and phone behaviors. If your child is using social technology, parents can lay down ground rules early and often regarding maintaining privacy online. Be mindful of who they are speaking to and what conversations they are having. Intervene where necessary. You may choose to provide pre-teens and teens more privacy with these behaviors (although some form of monitoring should still occur).

Know the Warning Signs: Be aware that different forms of abuse do occur in some romantic relationships that teenagers experience. Understand what to look out for, such as:
  • Sudden changes in mood, increased sadness, and irritability
  • Increased isolation from friends and family
  • Sudden change in personality
  • Falling or failing grades
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Increased defensiveness when approached

To summarize, children and teenagers depend on their parents for social and emotional support. Parents have the opportunity to be open and honest about relationship safety so children and teens are well equipped to make positive relationship choices and feel comfortable to turn to parents for support when needed.

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