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Talk with Your Teen about Healthy Relationships

Content last updated on:
November 25, 2014

The Basics

You can help your teen build strong, respectful relationships. Start by teaching your son or daughter about healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, many teens have relationships that are unhealthy. More than 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

You can help your kids:

  • Develop skills for healthy and safe relationships
  • Set expectations for how they want to be treated
  • Recognize when a relationship doesn’t feel good

Talking about healthy relationships is a great way to show you are available to listen and answer questions – so make sure to check in often with your teen. Together, you can agree on clear rules about dating to help keep your teen safe.

When should I start talking with my child about relationships?
It’s never too early to teach your child about healthy relationships. You’ve probably been doing it all along. 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 kids, partner, and friends in healthy, supportive ways, your kids learn from your choices.

Kids learn from unhealthy experiences, too. When kids experience violence at home or in the community, they are more likely to be in unhealthy relationships later on.

When should I start talking about dating?
The best time to start talking about healthy dating relationships is 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 are with that person?

What makes a relationship healthy?
In a healthy relationship:

  • Both people feel respected, supported, and valued
  • Decisions are made together
  • Both people have friends and interests outside of the relationship
  • Disagreements are settled with open and honest communication
  • There are more good times than bad

What makes a relationship unhealthy?
In an unhealthy relationship:

  • One person tries 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 person makes fun of the other’s opinions or interests
  • One person keeps track of the other all the time by calling, texting, or checking in with friends
  • There are more bad times than good

People in unhealthy relationships may make many excuses to try to explain away the hurtful parts of the relationship. If you see any of these signs, talk to your teen.

What is dating violence?
Dating violence is when one person in a romantic relationship is abusive to the other person. This includes:

  • Stalking
  • Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse

Abuse can happen in person, online, or with cell phones. And it can happen in opposite-sex (straight) and same-sex relationships.

Both boys and girls can be unhealthy or unsafe in a relationship. Sometimes, both partners act in unhealthy or unsafe ways. It’s important to talk to all kids about how to have respectful, healthy relationships.

Find out more about teen dating violence.

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
  • Hang out with friends who are violent
  • Have trouble controlling their anger
  • Struggle with learning in school
  • Have sex with more than one person
  • Have experienced violence at home or in the community

What are the warning signs of dating violence?
It’s common for teens to have mood swings or try out different behaviors. But sudden changes in your teen’s attitude or behavior could mean that something more serious is going on. If you are worried, talk to your teen to find out more.

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

Watch for signs that your teen’s partner may be violent.
If your teen is in a relationship with someone who uses violence, your teen may:

  • Avoid friends, family, and school activities
  • Make excuses for a partner’s behavior
  • Look uncomfortable or fearful around a 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 someone else’s decisions
  • Constantly texts or calls a partner
  • Posts embarrassing information about a partner on websites like Facebook (including sexual information or pictures)

Help your teen stay healthy.
Dating violence can have long-term effects for both partners – even after the relationship ends.

By helping your teen develop the skills for healthy relationships, you can also help prevent the long-term effects of dating violence.

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

Watch for signs of dating violence and help your teen stay healthy now and in the future.

Take Action!

Take Action!

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’d handle different situations. 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 girlfriend in front of everyone at a party?”

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

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

Set rules for dating.
As kids get older, they gain more independence and freedom. But teens still need parents to set boundaries and expectations for behavior.

Here are some things to talk about with your teen:

  • Are friends allowed to come over when you aren’t home?
  • Can your son go on a date with someone you haven’t met?
  • How can your daughter reach you if she needs a ride home?

Get tips on setting rules for your teen [PDF - 175 MB].

Be a role model.
You can teach your kids a lot by treating them and others with respect. As you talk with your teen about healthy relationships, think about your own behavior. Does it match the values you are 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 staying safe.

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 children about your values and expectations around sex.

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

If you are worried, talk to your teen.
If you think your teen’s relationship might be violent, you can:

  • Write down the reasons you are worried.
  • Tell your teen why you are concerned. Point out specific things that don’t seem right to you.
  • Listen to your teen calmly, and thank her or him for opening up.

Get help if you need it.
If you are worried about your teen’s safety, there are people who can help.

Contact the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, describe your situation, and get advice about what to do next. To reach the helpline:

  • Call 1-866-331-9474
  • Call 1-866-331-8453 for TTY if you have trouble hearing or speaking
  • Text “loveis” to 22522

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

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