Talk with Your Teen about Healthy Relationships

The Basics

The Basics: Overview

Parents play an important role in teaching kids about healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, many teens are in relationships that are unhealthy. About 1 in 10 teens who have been on a date have also been:

  • Physically abused (hit, pushed, or slapped) by someone they’ve gone out with
  • Sexually abused (kissed, touched, or forced to have sex without wanting to) by someone they’ve dated

The good news is, you can help your teen develop strong, respectful relationships. Start by talking with your child about how to:

  • Set expectations for how they want to be treated
  • Recognize when a relationship is unhealthy
  • Support friends dealing with unhealthy relationships

Talking about healthy relationships is a great way to show that you're available to listen and answer questions. Together, you can agree on clear rules about dating to help keep your teen safe.

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The Basics: When to Start Talking

How do kids learn about relationships?

Kids learn about relationships from the adults around them. When you taught your child to say “please” and “thank you” as a toddler, you were teaching respect and kindness.

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

Children learn from unhealthy experiences, too. If they experience violence at home or in the community, they're more likely to be in unhealthy relationships later on.

When should I start talking about healthy relationships?

It’s best to start talking about healthy relationships 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're with that person?
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The Basics: Healthy Relationships

What makes a relationship healthy?

In a healthy relationship:

  • Both people feel respected, supported, and valued
  • Both people make decisions together
  • Both people have friends and interests outside of the relationship
  • Both people settle disagreements with open and honest communication
  • Both people respect each other's privacy and space

What makes a relationship unhealthy?

In an unhealthy relationship:

  • One or both people try 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 or both people yell, threaten, hit, or throw things during arguments
  • One or both people make fun of the other’s opinions or interests
  • One or both people keep track of the other all the time by calling, texting, or checking in with friends

Teens may think it’s okay to act in these ways, but these behaviors can develop into violence. If you see any of these signs, talk to your teen.

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The Basics: Dating Violence

What is dating violence?

Dating violence is when one person in a romantic relationship is physically or emotionally harmful to the other person. It can happen in any relationship, whether it’s an opposite-sex (straight) or same-sex (gay) relationship.

Dating violence can include:

  • Stalking, like watching or following a partner, or sending repeated, unwanted phone calls or texts
  • Controlling behavior, like telling a partner how to dress or who to spend time with
  • Emotional abuse, like embarrassing a partner or keeping that person away from family and friends
  • Physical abuse, like pushing, hitting, or throwing things
  • Sexual abuse, like forcing or trying to force someone to have sex

Dating violence can happen in person, online, or with other technology (like cell phones). It can also keep happening after the relationship has ended. Find out more about teen dating violence.

Both boys and girls can experience unhealthy or unsafe relationships. Sometimes both partners act in unhealthy or unsafe ways, but using violence is never okay. It’s important to talk to all kids about how to have respectful, healthy relationships.

Who is at risk for dating violence?

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
  • Have friends who are violent
  • Have trouble controlling their anger
  • Struggle with learning in school
  • Have sex with multiple partners
  • Have experienced or witnessed violence at home or in the community
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The Basics: Warning Signs

What are the warning signs of dating violence?

It’s common for teens to have mood swings, but sudden changes in your teen’s attitude or behavior could mean there's something more serious going on. If you're worried, talk to your teen to find out more.

Show your teen this fact sheet about healthy and unhealthy relationships [PDF - 681 KB].

Watch for signs that your teen’s partner may be violent.

If your teen is in a relationship with someone who is violent, your teen may:

  • Avoid friends, family, and school activities
  • Make excuses for the partner’s behavior
  • Look uncomfortable or fearful around the partner
  • Lose interest in favorite activities
  • Get lower grades in school
  • Have unexplained injuries, like bruises or scratches

Watch for signs that your teen may be violent.

Teens who use physical, emotional, or sexual violence to control their partners need help to stop. Start a conversation if your teen:

  • Is jealous and possessive
  • Blames other people for anything that goes wrong
  • Damages or ruins a partner’s things
  • Wants to control a partner’s decisions
  • Constantly texts or calls a partner
  • Posts embarrassing information about a partner on websites like Facebook (including sexual information or pictures)
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The Basics: Health Effects

Help your teen stay healthy.

Dating violence can have long-term effects for both partners — even after the relationship ends. The good news is, teaching your teen about healthy relationships can help prevent these negative effects.

Someone who has experienced dating violence may struggle with:

  • Depression
  • Low self-confidence
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Other violent relationships

A partner who has been violent may experience:

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

You can help prevent these long-term effects of dating violence by helping your teen develop the skills for healthy relationships. Watch for signs of dating violence and help your teen stay healthy now and in the future.

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Take Action!

Take Action: Teach Skills and Set Rules

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

Help your teen develop problem-solving skills.

Help your teen think about healthy relationships by asking how he would handle different situations. For example, you might ask, “What would you do if:

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

It may help to use examples from TV shows, movies, or songs to start the conversation.

Listen respectfully to your teen’s answer, even if you don’t agree. Then you can offer your opinion and explore other options together. Use these tips to start a conversation with your teen.

Help your teen support a friend.

It's also a good idea to talk with your teen about what she can do if a friend is in an unhealthy relationship. Suggest that your teen talk to you or another adult, like a school counselor, if she notices signs of dating violence.

Set rules for dating.

As kids get older, they gain more independence. But teens still need parents to set boundaries and expectations for behavior. Get tips on setting rules for your teen [PDF - 175 MB].

Here are some examples of rules to talk about with your teen:

  • Are friends allowed to come over when you aren’t home?
  • Can your teen go on a date with someone you haven’t met?
  • How can your teen reach you if she needs a ride home?
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Take Action: Be a Role Model

Be a role model.

Treat your kids and others with respect. As you talk with your teen about healthy relationships, think about your own behavior. Does it match the values you're talking about?

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

To learn more about building stronger relationships with your child, check out these resources:

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 teen about your values and expectations.

Talk to your kids about preventing STDs.

About half of all STD cases in the United States happen in teens and young adults ages 15 to 24. Learn how to talk with your teen about STD prevention.

Talk with your kids about alcohol and other drugs.

Alcohol and drugs don’t cause violence or unhealthy relationships, but they can make it harder to make healthy choices. Talk to your kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.

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Take Action: Help Your Teen

If you're worried, talk to your teen.

If you think your teen’s relationship might be violent, take these steps:

  • Write down the reasons you're worried.
  • Tell your teen why you're concerned. Point out specific things that concern you.
  • Listen to your teen calmly, and thank her for opening up.

Get help if you need it.

If you're worried about your teen’s safety, there are people who can help.

Loveisrespect is an organization that offers support and information for teens and their parents or friends who have concerns about dating relationships. To get in touch with a trained peer advocate, you can:

You can also contact your state’s domestic violence coalition to find resources near you.

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