From the moment that children are born, parents play an essential role in ensuring their comfort and protection.  As children grow into adolescence, parents’ roles naturally evolve into helping them interact with the world in a positive and healthy way. As children grow into teenagers, a common way they interact with their world and discover parts of their own identity is through their various relationships. During the pre-teen and teen years, it is critical for youth to begin learning the necessary skills to create and maintain healthy relationships, and parents play a key role in that process.

Teenagers tend to utilize observational learning; they watch others, retain that information, and then later repeat the behaviors that they observed. When teenagers start dating, they attempt to balance all of the information that they are learning with the intense desire to be liked or approved of by an intimate partner. If teenagers do not have a baseline for what a healthy intimate relationship is supposed to look like, it can be difficult and potentially confusing for them to create that on their own.

What examples are teens learning at home?

Throughout their attempts to formulate intimate relationships, teenagers continue to be highly influenced by the adults around them. Parents have the power to be a positive role model and engage in respectful relationships so that their youth can see what that should look like.  Unfortunately, children and teenagers who have witnessed domestic violence are at a greater risk for repeating that cycle as they start dating, and then into adulthood. However, even parents who experience(d) toxicity or abuse in their own relationships still have an opportunity to model healthy standards for their teenager.

Below are some ways that parents can model and promote healthy intimate relationships:

  • Expand your own awareness of what a healthy relationship looks like so you are better able to model it and explain the dynamics to your teen. Be aware of how you regulate your own emotions and manage conflict in intimate relationships.
  • Promote an open dialogue with your teen. Recognize and validate their emotions during discussions about:
    • Healthy relationships; what they are versus what they are not.
    • How they want to be treated  in their relationships and how they want to treat others.
    • Boundaries; both their boundaries and your boundaries. Continue to work towards establishing privacy boundaries that you both can agree on.
    • Any fears they may have about relationships or dating.

Conversations about relationships can create a space for teenagers to feel safe, heard, and accepted. Try to manage your own assumptions and judgments. Listen to understand and use areas where you may not agree or have the same expectations as opportunities for further conversation. These positive parenting behaviors help teenagers form positive internal working models of themselves as loveable and worthy.

Setting the Standard

A respectful, loving, and supportive relationship between parents and teenagers, and between parents themselves, can set a healthy and important standard.  Teenagers can use what they witness at home as a guide for how to form and maintain safe, happy intimate relationships. Now is always the best time to help your teen expand on their awareness of healthy relationships.