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Like it or not, your teen WILL start dating or develop romantic interests at some point. How do you teach them what healthy relationships look like — and what the red flags are?

Sex ed is a big — and somewhat controversial — topic, but if you're thinking about how to deal with teenagers' budding romantic interests, there's another subject you really shouldn't skip. That topic is healthy romantic relationships. What do they look like? What do they definitely not look like? What should every person know about relationships? It's information every person will benefit from, and considering that about 62 percent of twelfth graders have dated, along with 40 percent of eighth graders, it's likely to be relevant in your teenager's life right now [1]. 

How should you teach teenagers about healthy romantic relationships?

You Are Your Teen's Role Model

Your teen may not realize it, much less like the idea, but what you say and do does an awful lot to influence them. Your own romantic life is, for better or worse, the first model they'll ever see, and it leaves a lasting impact. Research indicates, for instance, that children of divorced parents have a more negative view of marriage and that they are less optimistic about the chances of having a healthy and lasting marriage themselves. You'll even come across the concept of an "intergenerational transmission of divorce" — that is, that your child is more likely to get divorced at some point in their life if you were, yourself, divorced. [2]

Male teens who have witnessed a violence between their parents are additionally more likely to be violent towards a dating partner, as are those who believe it's OK to be violent towards women — an attitude that is again closely correlated with the values they pick up at home. [3]

"The best thing you can do to make sure your child will choose a healthy partner and end up in a happy relationship is for those things to apply to you" — it's a shallow and smug thing to say, and not something I personally enjoy anymore than other divorced folks out there, but there's some scientific truth to it. If you're happily partnered or married, this idea should make you happy. If you're not, well, I am personally hoping that my singledom doesn't prevent me from giving my kids some guidance. Either way, romantic relationships are something to talk about with teens.

So, topics for conversation could include:

  • The qualities your teen would look for in a boyfriend or girlfriend — and those they definitely wouldn't. 
  • What they think a healthy relationship looks like — and what a toxic, abusive, relationship looks like.
  • How domestic violence escalates over time and how to recognize the signs.
  • Consent. 
  • The possibility that your teen's peer group may be pressuring them to date. 
  • How to handle breakups. [4]

Conversations about the topic of relationships may be a little awkward, though probably less awkward than those about sex. In my family, I use current events and media to bring the topic up in a less personal way.

Was Steve in Stranger Things wrong to pressure his girlfriend to keep on making out when she already said she needed to study? Why do girls feel the need to say things like that, rather than just plain old "no"?

My daughter is happy to discuss these topics in exactly that kind of setting, and they're an opening to talk about things she may soon experience herself, as well. 

Relationship Red Flags: Helping Your Teen Recognize Domestic Violence And Abusive Relationships

No, it isn't too early to deal with this hard topic. For one — when are you going to talk about abusive relationships if not now? Then, there's the fact that research suggests that a full quarter of high school students have experienced some form of physical violence in a dating relationship, and that goes for girls and boys. These relationships often fail to raise red flags in their communities, unfortunately. [5]

Further research reveals that teenagers themselves aren't armed with the information they need, and particularly indicated that they didn't know about the risks involved with possessive and jealous behavior in a dating partner. [6]

Now is the time to make your teenager aware of the red flags of an abusive relationship, then, signs such as these:

  • Boyfriend or girlfriend constantly monitors your whereabouts. 
  • Boyfriend or girlfriend tries to decide what clothes you wear. 
  • Boyfriend or girlfriend tries to keep you from socializing with your friends. 
  • Boyfriend or girlfriend humiliates you and makes you feel bad. 
  • You are afraid of your boyfriend or girlfriend. [7]

Considering that teenagers are new to the world of dating and relationships, and may not be sure what is and isn't normal and healthy, it parents play a special role in providing guidance. 

Consent Matters

You might have seen that "Consent — it's as simple as tea" video floating around on YouTube. It's an excellent video, and I suggest you watch it with your teen. (There's a version for younger children as well.) The narrator explains that you shouldn't force tea people don't want down their throat, you shouldn't be annoyed when someone doesn't want tea, people can decide not to drink tea you've already made them, and — unconscious people don't want tea. Sex is the same. 

All this, I think, should be explained in the plainest terms to teenage girls and boys alike. We don't want our sons thinking it's OK to initiate sex with someone who is really drunk, or our daughters thinking they're obliged to have sex if their dates bought them dinner. A lack of consent has no place in a healthy relationship. 

What Are Healthy Relationships Then?

Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust and respect, and they make you feel good and safe — not bad and afraid. Whether a teenager's date lasts a week or a lifetime, these things are important. As your teen inevitably steps out into the world of dating or romantic relationships, talking about healthy relationships is as important as talking about STDs. Start talking early, keep talking, and develop a low-conflict relationship with your teen in which they'll know you've got their back, but in a non-judgmental way. 

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