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Talk with Your Teen about Healthy Relationships

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The Basics

You can help your teen build strong, respectful relationships. Start by teaching your son or daughter about healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, many teens find themselves in relationships that are unhealthy. One in 10 teens report being physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the last year.

You can help your kids:

  • Develop the skills they will need to have healthy and safe relationships
  • Set expectations for how they want to be treated
  • Recognize when a relationship doesn’t feel good

When you talk with your teen about relationships, you make it clear that you are available to listen and answer questions.

When do I start talking with my child about relationships?
It’s never too early to teach your child about healthy relationships. In fact, you’ve probably been doing it all along. When you taught your son to say “please” and “thank you” as a toddler, you were teaching him about respect and kindness.

Your own relationships also teach your kids how to treat others. When you treat your kids, partner, and friends in healthy, supportive ways, your kids learn from your choices.

Kids learn from unhealthy experiences, too. If your child is experiencing violence at home or in the community, he may be more likely to be in an unhealthy relationship later on.

When do I start talking about dating relationships?
The best time to start talking about healthy dating relationships is before your child starts dating. Start conversations about what to look for in a romantic partner. For example, you could ask your child:

  • How do you want to be treated?
  • How do you want to feel about yourself when you are with that person?

What makes a relationship healthy?
In a healthy relationship:

  • Both people feel respected, supported, and valued
  • Decisions are made together
  • Both people have friends and interests outside of the relationship
  • Disagreements are settled with open and honest communication
  • There are more good times than bad

What makes a relationship unhealthy?
In an unhealthy relationship:

  • One person tries to change the other
  • One person makes most or all of the decisions
  • One or both people drop friends and interests outside of the relationship
  • One person yells, threatens, hits, or throws things during arguments
  • One person makes fun of the other’s opinions or interests
  • One person keeps track of the other all the time by calling, texting, or checking in with other friends
  • There are more bad times than good

People in unhealthy relationships may have many excuses to try to explain away the hurtful parts of the relationship. If you see these signs, talk to your teen.

What is dating violence?
Dating violence is when one person in a romantic relationship is abusive to the other person. Dating violence includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. It can happen in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Both boys and girls can be unhealthy or unsafe in a relationship. That’s why it’s so important to talk to all kids and teens about how to be in respectful, healthy relationships.

Who is at risk for dating violence?
While dating violence can happen to anyone, teens may be more at risk of being in unhealthy relationships if they:

  • Use alcohol or drugs
  • Are depressed
  • Hang out with friends who are violent
  • Have trouble controlling their anger
  • Struggle with learning in school
  • Have sex with more than one person

What are the warning signs of dating violence?
It’s common for teens to have mood swings and to try out different behaviors. However, sudden changes in your teen’s attitude or behavior could be a sign that something more serious is going on.

If you think this may be the case, talk to your teen to find out more.

Watch for signs that your teen may have a partner who is violent.
Here are some changes you might see in a teen whose partner uses violence:

  • Avoiding friends, family, and school activities
  • Making excuses for a partner’s behavior
  • Looking uncomfortable or fearful around a partner
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Getting bad grades
  • Having unexplained injuries, like bruises or scratches

Watch for signs that your teen may be violent.
People who use physical, emotional, or sexual violence to control their partners also need help to stop. If you see these signs in your child, your teen might need help with violent behaviors:

  • Jealousy and possessiveness
  • Blaming other people for anything that goes wrong
  • Damaging or ruining a partner’s things
  • Wanting to control someone else’s decisions
  • Constantly texting or calling a partner
  • Posting embarrassing information about a partner on Web sites like Facebook (including sexual information or pictures)

Help your teen stay healthy.
By talking with your teen about healthy relationships, you can also help prevent the long-term effects of dating violence. Both partners in a violent relationship can develop unhealthy behaviors, even after the relationship ends.

A victim of dating violence may experience:

  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • A pattern of violent relationships
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

A partner who is violent may experience:

  • Loss of respect from others
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Loneliness
  • Trouble with the law

Watch for signs of dating violence and help your teen stay healthy now and in the future.

Take Action!

Talk with your kids to help them develop realistic and healthy expectations for relationships.

Share the facts about healthy relationships.
You can help your teen develop problem-solving skills by asking how he’d handle different situations. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Ask your child, “What would you do if:

  • think your friend’s partner isn’t treating him right?”
  • ...your partner is calling you to come over whenever you try to hang out with your friends?”
  • see a friend yelling at his girlfriend in front of everyone at a party?”

It might help to use examples of relationships from TV, movies, or video games to start the conversation.

Be sure to listen respectfully to your teen’s answer, even if you don’t agree. Then you can offer your opinion and explore other options together.

Set rules for dating.
As kids get older, they gain more independence and freedom. However, teens still need parents to set boundaries and expectations for their behavior.

Here are some things you may want to talk about with your teen ahead of time:

  • Can friends come over when you aren’t home?
  • Can your son go on a date with someone you haven’t met?
  • How can your daughter reach you if she ever needs a ride home?

Get tips on setting rules for your teen [PDF - 175 MB].

Be a role model.
You can teach your kids a lot by treating them and others with respect. As you have conversations with your teen about healthy relationships, think about your own behavior. Does it match the values you are talking about?

Treating your kids with respect also helps you build healthy relationships with them. This can make it easier to communicate with your teen about important issues like staying safe.

These resources can help you understand your teen and model respect:

Talk to your kids about sex.
Teens who have sex with more than one person are at higher risk of being in an unhealthy relationship. Talk with your children about your values and expectations.

Talk with your kids about tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
While alcohol and drugs don’t cause violence or unhealthy relationships, they can make it harder for kids to make smart choices. Talk to your child about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.

Talk to your teen about any concerns.
If you think your teen’s relationship might be violent, you can:

  • Write down the reasons you are worried.
  • Tell your teen why you are concerned about him. Point out specific things that don’t seem right to you.
  • Listen to your teen calmly, and thank her for opening up.

Get help if you need it.
If you are worried about your teen’s safety, there are people who can help.

Start Today: Small Steps

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Content last updated on: August 24, 2012

National Health Information Center

P.O. Box 1133, Washington, DC 20013-1133