There are many things parents can do to help their teen learn to form healthy relationships. The process may seem hard at times. But, keep in mind that the rewards of your efforts will reach far into your child’s future.

What Do the Experts Say About Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships and Teens?

As parents, we all want our teens to learn how to form healthy relationships with others. Research shows that teens who form positive relationships with family and peers are both happier and healthier. Experts say that healthy relationships can act as a buffer against the negative influences in your teenager’s life. What’s more, they tell us that teens who form healthy relationships are both physically and emotionally safer than those who do not.

The link between healthy relationships and healthy teens doesn’t end there. For example, we know that teens who form healthy relationships with their peers are more likely to succeed in school and more likely to pursue a college degree. What’s more, according to a joint study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development along with the National Institute of Mental Health, the benefits of healthy relationships formed during the teen years can reach far beyond adolescence.

The study, which was conducted by the Society for Research in Child Development, showed that adults who had healthy relationships during their teen years continued to be mentally healthier throughout their lives. When compared to their peers, adults who formed healthy relationships during their teen years experienced less social anxiety and had higher feelings of self-worth. These adults were also found to have better overall mental health and to experience fewer episodes of depression.

“Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.  When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems.  We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”

Matthew Lieberman, Scientist

While the experts agree that healthy relationships are beneficial for teens, the opposite is true of unhealthy relationships. Just as the phrase implies, ‘unhealthy relationships’ can cause both physical and emotional harm to your teen. In the same way that healthy relationships can influence your teen in positive ways for years to come, unhealthy relationships during the teen years can cause lasting physical and psychological wounds.

According to loveisrespect.org  — a project funded by the National Domestic Violence Hotline to address teen dating violence — as many as 1.5 million boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are victims of dating violence every year in the US. One out of every ten high school students will be physically assaulted by a dating partner this year. One out of every three students will experience physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse from a dating partner before graduating from high school.

Weighing the risks of unhealthy relationships against the rewards of healthy ones, parents are often left wondering how they can help their teen navigate the complicated world of relationships.

​Help Your Teen Learn To Identify Healthy Relationships

It can be hard for a teenager to sort out which relationships are good for them and which are not. In theory, healthy relationships are those that help you feel good about yourself and the people you spend time with. Yet even the most unhealthy relationship can still make your teen feel good at times. For this reason, teens need information and decision-making tools to help guide them through the emotional ups and downs that come often come with teen relationships.

One helpful tool parents can give to their teens is the Respect Effect app. The free app was developed by Futures Without Violence in partnership with the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women and the Advertising Council. The app uses the power of social media to engage and empower teens, all while helping them learn about healthy relationships, safe dating and more. The app also helps teens develop important relationship skills such as listening, communication and conflict resolution skills.

​According to the Respect Effect website, it’s important for parents to talk to their teens about healthy vs unhealthy relationships. Ask your teen to identify five healthy relationships that exist in their life. Who would your teen go to in a crisis? Help them identify what it is about those people and relationships that make them feel safe.

​Give your teen the building blocks for healthy relationships.

​According to the University of Washington’s Health and Wellness Department, in healthy relationships, both people do the following.

  • ​Treat each other with respect
  • ​Feel secure and comfortable
  • ​Are not violent with each other
  • ​Can resolve conflicts satisfactorily
  • ​Enjoy the time you spend together
  • ​Support one another
  • ​Take an interest in each other’s lives: school, clubs, friends family, work, etc.
  • ​allow privacy in the relationship
  • ​Can trust each other
  • ​Both are sexual by choice
  • ​Clearly and openly communicate
  • ​Have email, letters, and phone conversations that are just yours
  • ​Healthy decision making about alcohol or other drugs
  • ​Friendships with others encouraged
  • ​Honesty regarding past and present sexual activity if the relationship is intimate
  • ​Know that most people in your life are happy about the relationship
  • ​There are more good times in the relationship than bad

Talk with your teen about their relationships. Ask them to evaluate their friendships using the qualities listed above. Are there ways your teen thinks their relationships could be healthier than they are? What might your teen do differently to make their relationships better?

You may also want to use the image below as a starting point for talking with your teen about other aspects of healthy relationships.

​A better loving relationship -36 critical lessons mind map. Image, CC by 2.0 image by jean-louis Zimmermann via Flickr

​Help Your Teen Learn to Identify Unhealthy Relationships

Like healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships also share certain characteristics. Teach your teen the warning signs of abusive relationships, including:

  • ​jealousy
  • ​controlling behavior
  • ​belittling/put-downs
  • ​unwanted touching or sexual advances
  • ​breaking objects/possessions
  • ​threatening or intimidating behavior
  • ​any form of violence

Beauty Cares uses slightly different terms on their list but covers the same ground. Plus, you can download the image and keep it handy for future reference.

If you know that your teen is safe, talk with them about how they would respond if a friend or dating partner engaged in one of the behaviors listed above. Ask your teen if they have ever been in a situation where a friend or dating partner made them feel afraid or uncomfortable. Be aware that only about a third of teens who are in a violent relationship will feel safe enough to confide in someone. That’s why it is so important for parents to keep the lines of communication open.

Another good way to get your teen talking about healthy vs unhealthy relationships might to visit That’s Not Cool on YouTube. You will find dozens of short videos (under 60 seconds) that you and your teen can watch together. The videos can serve as good a starting point for discussing relationships with your teen.

Here’s an example:

If your teen is old enough, you may also want to help them come up with a safety plan for dating.  You can print out this one, from loveisrespect.org or come up with one of your own.

​Set Healthy Boundaries for Your Teen

It can be difficult for teens to know where to set their own boundaries. It’s no wonder, when you consider that their brains are still developing yet their hormones are surging out of control. According to Harvard Medical School:

​“The adolescent brain pours out adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormone, which in turn influence brain development. The production of testosterone increases 10 times in adolescent boys. Sex hormones act in the limbic system and in the raphe nucleus, source of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important for the regulation of arousal and mood. The hormonally regulated 24-hour clocks change their settings during adolescence, keeping high school and college students awake far into the night and making it difficult to rise for morning classes.”

With all of this going on, it’s easy to understand why some teens have a difficult time setting appropriate boundaries with peers.

Depending on the age of your teen, you may want to consider setting the boundaries for their social interactions. If you’re the parent of a young teen, you might consider supervised dating, for example. On the other hand, if your teen is older, you may want to allow them to date in groups only.

It’s also a good idea to decide ahead of time, with your teen, how much time they will spend with friends or dating partners. Encourage your teen to set reasonable limits for themselves which you can both feel comfortable with. Let your teen know that as they grow older and more mature, the doors will be open for renegotiating the rules.

Talk about the level of intimacy your teen believes they are ready for. Help them set personal boundaries and encourage them to take personal responsibility for decisions regarding sex and intimacy.

​You Are Your Teen’s Best Teacher

As a parent, one of the most powerful things you can do to help your teen form healthy relationships is to role-model those relationships. Whether you are a single dad or a stay-at-home-mom, you have the power to positively influence your teen in ways both big and small.

Here are some of the ways you can do that:

While it may take time for your teen to acquire the necessary social and emotional skills needed to form healthy relationships, as a parent you have the ability to help and guide them every step of the way.

 

Featured image CC by 0, by johnhain, via Pixabay

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