How to Talk to Your Child About Healthy Dating Relationships
Tips on how parents can play a role in how their children think about romantic relationships
Young people begin receiving messages about romantic relationships from birth. From the time they’re handed a Barbie Doll to the moment they start seeing commercials on television, they are absorbing anything from subtle societal expectations about their gender roles to overt media messages about sexual expectations. The #MeToo movement and high-profile sexual abuse cases have put a spotlight on sexual abuse and dating violence. What are the boundaries in a healthy relationship? What can someone do if they feel uncomfortable?
Navigating boundaries and asserting autonomy can be difficult for young people and adults alike. By offering tips, we want parents to see how they can play a role in how their children think about healthy relationships.
Don’t Be Afraid to Bring Up the Conversation
Many parents worry that by initiating a conversation about healthy romantic relationships, they will be perceived as giving permission to their child to engage in sexual behaviors. On the contrary, studies have shown that teens who report talking with their parents about sex are more likely to delay having sex. Even if your child is not in a romantic relationship, abuse may be happening to one of his or her friends who may not know that what they’re experiencing is abusive or how to ask for help.
Talking about healthy relationships does not have to be awkward. A parent can do it in an accessible way by relating it to a book their child is reading or to their favorite TV show. The conversation should be less like an interview and more of a two-way street.
Young People Don’t Date the Same Way Their Parents Did
Dating is not just going out on dates anymore. Sometimes young people have technology-only relationships that parents may not consider a real relationship, even though young people do. Although this type of dating can be strictly online, there can still be a tremendous amount of pressure for adolescents. Here are some warning signs of unhealthy relationships to look out for:
- If their partner is demanding their passwords.
- If someone is uncomfortable with what is being said to them.
- If someone is controlling what social media they look at, or what they are allowed to like and comment on.
Get Them to Think Critically
Meet children where they are and teach them not what to think, but how to critically analyze a situation. Make sure a child knows how to identify unhealthy behavior and where they can go to ask for help. One way a parent can get their child to think critically would be to ask them if they’re receiving their rights in their relationship. Here is a list of rights a parent could use to continue the conversation:
- You have the right to privacy, both online and off.
- You have the right to feel safe and respected.
- You have the right to decide who you want to date or not date.
- You have the right to choose when/if you have sex and who you have sex with.
- You have the right to say no at any time (to sex, to drugs or alcohol, to a relationship), even if you’ve said yes before.
- You have the right to hang out with your friends and family and do things you enjoy, without your partner getting jealous or controlling.
- You have the right to end a relationship that isn’t right or healthy for you.
- You have the right to be in a relationship free from violence and abuse.
Being a parent is hard, but being a middle-schooler in a whirlwind of expectations and peer pressure is overwhelming, too. Parents should seek for more advice and discussion from other parents, their own parents, friends and guidance counselors to find the right way to communicate with their child. All in all, a child needs to know that he or she has an adult to reach out to for help.
Valerie Sauer is the Director of Education Programs at the Compass Center for Women and Families in Chapel Hill. In her role, she oversees the implementation of adolescent health programs in area schools, including Teens Climb High, an evidence-based sexual health curriculum; and Start Strong, a dating violence prevention program.