Adolescence is a developmentally normal time to become interested in having relationships that are more romantic in nature. It is also usually the time when a person starts to learn about relationships on a deeper level, especially through personal experience. Since teenagers are newer to learning about relationships, they may require someone to teach them how to relate in healthy ways to potential partners and friends.
According to Loveisrespect.org, one in three teenagers experiences physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse by a dating partner. While this statistic is alarming, some of these occurrences can be prevented. A trusted, caring adult taking the time to talk to a teenager about relationships can and often does go a long way. Here are some tips to helping your teenager have a healthy relationship:
Set aside time to talk to your teenager about signs of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships.
Teenagers can get ideas about relationships from everywhere (the media, friends, etc.). These ideas could be inaccurate and may require some re-shaping. Adults also can have distorted ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship. Behaviors in a relationship are on a spectrum (i.e., healthy, unhealthy, abusive). In order to clearly define an abusive relationship, you may consider showing your teen a resource such as the Power and Control Wheel. A healthy relationship consists of ability to manage conflicts, ability to communicate with care and respect, boundaries (physical, emotional, material, etc.), time together as well as separate from one another (including time in contact with one another), and mutual giving and receiving without strings attached. It may help to give your teen some examples from the media of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships. If your teen is open to discussing further, you can ask them how they believe the individuals involved in the different kinds of relationships were impacted as a result of continuing or leaving the relationship.
Teach your teenager how to set and maintain boundaries.
Your teenager is at a time in their life that is crucial to start learning and practicing boundaries. They need to know what they are, how to set them, and what to do if someone does not respect the boundaries set. Teens also need to be aware of behaviors that may cross others’ boundaries and how to respect boundaries that others set. Boundaries are defined simply as “what is ok and what is not ok” or “what I will accept and what I will not accept.” Some examples of areas where teens especially need to respect and/or identify and set boundaries include (but are not limited to): how someone addresses them and talks to them, how they want to be touched, and how much time they want to spend with their partner. Once your teen has identified some boundaries, give examples of how your teen can clearly communicate these boundaries with words and actions. For example, depending on the situation, one may use an assertive communication formula such as “I feel __ when you ___. I would like ___.” Also, explain the difference between situations when a boundary may be successfully established by talking (e.g., first starting a relationship in regards to what kinds of physical touch are acceptable) and a situation in which a person may not respond to a verbal boundary (e.g., leaving the situation when possible when physical abuse is occurring).
Model healthy communication skills and boundaries in your own life.
Teenagers develop a certain way of thinking about communication and relationships by watching their parent or caregiver interact with others. Even if you do not have a history of healthy relationships or communication, it is never too late to start learning and trying new techniques. Furthermore, if you have a history of unhealthy or abusive relationships that your teen has witnessed (and you feel comfortable talking about it), it is okay to tell mention to your teen that you are aware that they witnessed abuse and provide examples of ways that you helped/could have helped the situation become better long-term (e.g., setting a boundary, talking calmly, respecting when a partner says “no,” leaving the home, leaving the relationship altogether).
Have open conversations with your teenager about their relationship, if they are open to talking about it with you.
A good way to start the conversation is to ask an open-ended question like, “How is it going with you and your partner?” or “How healthy do you feel your relationship is at this point?” Be open to listening to what your teen has to say without assuming or interrupting. Initially focus on helping your teen know that you are hearing them and understanding them. If you see signs that their relationship may be abusive, express (in a calm, loving way) your concern about the relationship. When you express the concern, focus on the specific behaviors of your teenager or their partner that are of concern, rather than focusing on the person. For example, saying, “I hear you saying that she regularly calls you awful names. I feel concerned about how this is affecting you,” rather than, “She’s an awful girlfriend. She’s so mean to you. Why are you staying with her?” If appropriate, during a conversation about a relationship that is clearly abusive, express that it is difficult for many people to get out of abusive relationships (because even research shows this to be accurate) and therapy can be a great tool to help with that, even if a person is unsure whether to stay in or leave the relationship.
Know when it may be time to get your teen into therapy.
Your teenager may benefit from therapy if they show signs of low self-esteem, poor boundaries, or you know that they may be in/have been in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. As distressing as it may be to witness your teen going through a difficult time, remember that your teenager may not be ready to make changes in their life. Even in spite of this, therapy can still offer a space for them to talk about why they may not be ready for a change or why making change feels difficult. Even if your teen does not make changes right away, it can be helpful for your teen to have the support of a therapist in the cases previously mentioned.