When young people start dating, it can be a difficult time for parents as they try to establish how much interest to take without coming across as interfering. Trying to strike this balance can be a juggling act as every parent wants to keep their teen safe when they embark into the world of relationships.
Starting up conversations early can help young people form what they want and do not want in relationships and can also help them identify what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Their ideals and values can form very early as they watch the relationships their parents may have. It is important to bear this in mind whether you are with the other parent or in another relationship, as your child may be observing from a young age and can form an idea of what is normal in a relationship. Unfortunately some young people we talk too who are in unhealthy relationships have said that their mum or dad was always arguing, so they think it is normal to accept this from their partner.
Starting up those conversations about healthy relationships for young people might feel awkward for some parents and this is natural under the circumstances. It might be a good idea to use a storyline from a movie or TV or an article in a magazine as a starting point. It is important not to make this too formal as your teen might want to bolt but just making it a general chat whilst doing the dinner or when relaxing may be more productive. You can ask them what they would do in certain scenarios, what they want from their ideal person and what attributes they might be looking for. Talk to them on their level and answer their questions honestly. This can be a positive way of finding out what their expectations are and teaching them to respect themselves.
Young people can often feel under pressure when their peers start taking an interest in relationships and may feel like they need to do the same. Often their self-esteem and confidence can take a knock during this time too. You may find that when they start developing feelings for someone, they may start questioning how they look, whether they are good enough for this person and might think that the person is looking for big boobs, muscles, perfect hair, good looking, designer clothes, etc. They may actually overlook the fact that the person who likes them is attracted to them as a person and it is important to drive this message home and encourage them to see the positives in themselves.
Ask your teen, what it is they look for in a person, for example, humour, caring, warm, considerate, etc. and then you can ask them what they think the other person wants in a person too. Smashing perceptions is a key thing to do as this is what can become negative for a young person. If they feel they do not live up to what they think the other person wants then it can affect them for a long time. Encouraging them to be their true self and letting them know that who they are is good enough and if not, then that person is not right for them is important so they have high expectations for themselves.
What is it young people are looking for
In past workshops we have delivered with young people, we would draw a healthy relationship pie and ask young people to add in ingredients that form part of a healthy relationship, such as, trust, compassion, considerate, equality, caring, loving, respect, funny, attraction, chemistry, shared interests, space, independence and friendship. We ask them to explore space and independence in more detail reminding them that a healthy relationship is where two people can have their own lives as part of a loving relationship without mistrust or jealousy. You may want to try this exercise with your teen and see what ingredients they come up with and then use these as great starting points for a discussion on healthy relationships.
We also talk about the importance of consent as part of a healthy relationship as this promotes trust and can stop people feeling pressured to do things sexually that they are not ready for. Letting them know that just because they are in a relationship that doesn’t mean they have to do things sexually and they have the right to say no. We often hear from young people who may be sexting because the person who they are with pressures them into it by saying, if you loved me you would, this often can have consequences. Let your teen know that saying no is ok and having boundaries is healthy and normal.
Healthy relationship checklist
In a healthy relationship both partners treat each other with respect. You could encourage your teen to answer the following questions honestly to work out if the relationship they are in is healthy. Is your partner:
- Willing to compromise?
- Let’s you feel comfortable being yourself?
- Is able to admit to being wrong?
- Is not jealous or possessive?
- Does not try to control what you wear, where you go or what you do?
- Does not physically hurt you?
- Does not emotionally hurt you (by calling you names, threatening you, making you feel bad)?
- Tries to resolve arguments and conflict by talking honestly?
- Enables you to feel safe being with them?
- Respects your feelings, your opinions and your friends?
- Accepts you saying no to things you don't want to do (like sex)?
- Accepts you changing your mind?
- Respects your wishes if you want to end the relationship?
If they have answered 'no' to any of these questions, they could be in an abusive relationship and you may want to give them the necessary support they need to empower them to make positive decisions for themselves.
Emotions good and bad
Emotions are part and parcel of any relationship whether the emotions are positive, challenging or negative. There are times when all relationships will experience a rollercoaster of emotions especially if dealing with challenging situations. Some of the positive emotions can leave a person feeling happy and overwhelming. As a parent you may see your teen go through this process and you could feel mixed emotions.
At times the emotions may be negative especially if they are dealing with jealousy or controlling behaviour. It is important to spot the signs if you think they are in an abusive relationship or experiencing negative relationship so you can support them in making decisions to safeguard themselves. Some jealousy is natural but once it starts to overcome or change a person, then your teen might need help to see that this is not healthy and needs addressing. This behaviour might include not allowing them to see friends or family, spending 24/7 together, not allowing them to dress how they want, etc. You could ask them what they think of the statements below and use this to dispel certain myths.
- It is acceptable for a boyfriend/girlfriend to keep you from seeing friends or from talking to any other guys or girl.
- It is normal for a boyfriend/girlfriend to get angry when you don't drop everything for him or her.
- It is acceptable for a boyfriend/girlfriend to pressure you to be more sexual active than you want to be.
When feelings get hurt
If they have feelings for someone and have been rejected, this can be devastating for a young person and can affect their confidence, self-esteem and motivation to carry on as normal. It is important as a parent to perhaps share your experiences and explain that most people at some point in their lives will experience this type of hurt and as painful as it feels right now, things will get easier. This might not help appease them immediately but just giving them support, lots of love and warmth will help them enormously to get over their hurt.
If they have experienced cheating or something on those lines, then they may feel really low and letting them know that this is not their fault is crucial. They may not want to hear it at the time, but giving them the support they need without saying negative things about the person who has hurt them is essential as they could be looking for a non-judgmental listening ear.
Relationships take work
It doesn’t matter if the people in the relationship are young or old, relationships take work no matter what the age, demographics or culture of the people involved. The happiness and success of a relationship depends on the healthiness of it. Encouraging your young person to see this, have high expectations for themselves and recognise warning signs is essential. Keep those conversations going with your young person by taking an interest in what is happening in their lives without interfering. Share your experiences with them of when you were younger so they can see that you may have gone through similar things too. Give them support and a listening ear when they need it and let them know that your door is always open if they want to talk about things.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.
Watch this video of teens talking about healthy relationships, their feelings and expectations
This page was updated on September 2021