Students who reported having conversations with adults in school and at home about violence against women and bullying were more likely to view these social behaviors as being wrong than did peers reporting fewer adult interactions.
(Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, 2011).
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Adult influencers matter. Adolescence is a time when kids are actively exploring their identities, experimenting and distinguishing themselves from their families. As adults in their lives, we may feel that we’re in a losing competition with peers and the media to influence their choices. Youth are informed by multiple sources in their worlds, but kids say that they are listening to the adults in their lives, and that they are influenced by our advice.
It might work best to start by remembering. Think back to your early teen relationships. Remember the power they had in your life. Remember the exhilaration of a mutual crush; remember feeling gutted like a fish by a bad break-up. Teen relationships matter. Remember how those relationships impacted your social status, and your peer relationships. It was Shakespearean. Whether those relationships ran their course in your teens, or whether you sustained them into adulthood, they mattered to us then and they influenced who we are now. With the advantage of perspective on teen relationships, adults sometimes minimize them; it’s important to keep in mind that none of us listen to folks that we don’t find credible, and we don’t tend to find credible folks who don’t respect or understand our experience. As you talk with the youth in your life about teen relationships, it’s important to remember that they mattered and to let the kids you talk with know that you understand their significance.
The key is to talk with, rather than at the youth whom you guide. Talking with youth about teen relationships does not mean telling them what to do; this almost never works. The most effective strategy will lie in the sweet spot between representing your opinions and values and respecting their emerging experience and perspective.
Helpful (talking with):
- Negotiating to create the rules
- Discussing your values
- Troubleshooting challenges
- Providing empathetic support
Not so helpful (talking at):
- Dealing in absolutes
- Censoring ideas and discussion
- Telling kids what they have to do
It can be challenging to loosen the reigns—especially when we care so much about the wellbeing of the teens in our lives. This doesn’t mean not having rules; it means creating open space where honest conversations can happen. In our zeal to protect, we may sometimes get it wrong. Luckily, this isn’t a one-time pass/fail type of conversation. Talking with young people about healthy relationships is a process that unfolds as they develop. You will have many conversations about feelings, fairness, respect, intimacy, consent, boundaries and break-ups.
Ideally, these sorts of conversations will have begun early and the conversation models that you used with preschoolers around good friendships and sharing can be adapted for romantic relationships. If not, there’s no time like the present to get started. By postponing these conversations until we think that our kids are or even should be dating, adults often miss the opportunity to inform early relationships. In reality, kids are practicing relationships early. In a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2012, ¾ of 8th grade students reported that they had already had a boyfriend or girlfriend. And abusive relationship behaviors can be present from the beginning; in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study, 1/3 of youth reported experiencing psychological abuse, 1/6 reported physical abuse and ½ reported experience of sexual abuse. Adults can get in front of the problem by helping our kids to develop healthy relationship expectations by having regular, open conversations about what respectful relationships look like.
What might you talk about?
A good strategy is to ask open-ended relationship questions, and then to let the conversation unfold. The Respect! website offers helpful talking points for adults initiating conversations about healthy relationships. By asking open-ended questions, you give the youth in your life the opportunity to talk and to explore the complexity of their emerging relationships. Here are some examples:
Why is it important to respect yourself?
What qualities are important to someone you would date or go out with?
What makes a relationship good?
What makes it bad?
What does respect look like in a relationship?
Here’s the link to the full exercise at the Respect site:
These conversations can be undertaken casually, in the in-between times (during the commute, in the lunch room, on the bus, etc). Another great option is Jane’s 20 questions, a game designed to foster trust, understanding and empathy among family members. The game was developed by I Am Jane, a project of Start Strong Oakland. Go play!
If your kids clam up about their own relationships, you can also look for points of entry from youth culture. People are talking about relationships all over the place—in song lyrics, books, movies, video games, blogs and TV shows. You can use any of these pieces of youth culture as a point of entry into a conversation about what’s going on with relationships in their world. Attempting to judge or to censor the content of the media that kids are consuming falls into the “telling them what to do” category, and just doesn’t work. And, honestly, if we think back to the media that was popular in our teens (take a moment) the same problematic elements of sexism, control, casual intimacy and abuse were present. Instead, adults can empower teens to become critical consumers of the media that surrounds them–to distinguish for themselves the messages that make sense from the nonsense. Start Strong (a national initiative designed to promote healthy relationships in order to prevent teen dating violence) sites have developed cool, relevant tools to help youth evaluate elements of their culture; here are some great examples:
The Boston Public Health Commission and Start Strong Boston developed the Sound Relationships tool. The tool uses an adapted nutrition label that guides youth through an exploration of the “healthy” and “unhealthy” elements of popular songs. Check it out: http://www.bphc.org/programs/cafh/violenceprevention/Forms%20%20Documents/Start%20Strong%20Sound%20Relationships.pdf
Start Strong Idaho uses cultural cornerstones like the Twilight series and the Hunger Games to engage youth in discussions about teen relationships. Here’s a link to their Hunger Games gender empowerment lesson plan:
By introducing regular conversations about teen relationships, we can normalize these conversations and demonstrate to the youth in our lives that healthy relationships and their well being matter to us.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2012. Prevention in middle school matters: A summary of findings on teen dating violence behaviors and associated risk factors among 7th-grade students. Available at: http://www.rwjf.org/files/research/42529.start.strong.interim.eval.rpt0312.pdf
Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention. 2011. The Sioux City Project. Preventing violence and bullying: A school district and community in motion. Available at: http://wivp.waittinstitute.org/navigation-left/sioux-city-project/2011-white-paper/