Helping your teens form and keep healthy relationships with friends, family, teachers and others begin during toddlerhood. As your teen grows up, you can help give her the language and skills needed to develop positive, healthy relationships throughout her life.
Mariette Murphy, MD, of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, shares her tips and expertise.
When should I start talking to my teen about healthy relationships?
It is never too late to start talking. Healthy teen relationships actually start at birth with forming family dynamics and a strong family foundation. Around age 2 is when toddlers start the process of separation and individuation from the parent. Individuation is the development and awareness of self. This is a good time to start using open communication skills you can build on as your child grows.
How do I talk to my teen about healthy relationships?
• Create language about relationships early on. Put talking about relationships first. Talk with your teen about what you notice in others’ relationships to help her understand how different relationships work.
• Change the language to make it more appropriate as your child grows. This lets the conversation grow and change over time. Talk openly about the values you have in a relationship. Share your willingness to listen and talk about relationship issues your teen is having.
• Talk about the power balance in any relationship. There is a power balance at every stage in a relationship. The power balance can change often. As a parent, talk about power in relationships and how it is used not only to build relationships, but also to harm them.
If you give your teen the words to talk about power in her relationships, she can have deeper and richer conversations about relationships with you and others.
In the early years, you are the parent. You have the power in the relationship. You set the rules and expectations. As your child enters the teen years, you can slowly give her more responsibility and the freedom to use it. Then, for example, when your teen is 18, the power balance changes again with legal adulthood.
Acknowledging this openly helps shift the power into a more mutual, respectful relationship. Ask what your child expects from you and explain what you expect from her. Clear responsibilities and boundaries create an atmosphere of honesty, mutual respect and understanding.
If needed, you can write a contract with your child that includes clear consequences if she does not follow the contract.
• Make the conversation about your child. This is the key to talking with your teen. Be interested in what she is interested in. Build a conversation by asking, listening and reflecting back what you hear. As a parent, you can help your teen understand relationships and process her experiences. This helps your teen build self-awareness and long-term thinking skills.
For example, you can say, “You have been online for an hour. What was holding your interest that long?” It’s not a guarantee that she will open up, but it shows you are interested. If she tells you, you can build a conversation from there.
• Help your teen process her experiences without judgment. Teaching right and wrong works best in the early years. With your teen, use your family’s dynamics to help her process her own experiences without judgment. For example, you can say, “I’m not judging you. I’m simply telling you that your choices have consequences.”
This helps build self-awareness. It also encourages your teen to think in terms of long-term consequences.
• Be open to hearing what your teen has to say. You might learn something from her, just as she has learned from you over the years.
• Use your family’s values and language to help your teen understand relationships of all kinds. Your teen will build many relationships as she grows. This includes family, friends, professionals, doctors, therapists, religious leaders, businesses and school.
Ask about her experience with the different people in her life. Give her the language to talk about boundaries and expectations in different relationships. Focusing on boundaries keeps relationships safe. When the boundaries are broken, your teen can be hurt.
Teach her about respecting boundaries and what to do to fix them. Talk about breaking boundaries in others’ relationships as an example. By using examples, your teen will not feel judged or controlled.
• Ask your teen what she does to build and keep trust in different relationships. What sort of communication does she use? How does she find trust and rebuild it when it is broken?
– Contact us at [email protected]
More health and well-being tips from MassGeneral Hospital experts:
Keys to asthma management
Love your heart, eat healthy
Prostate health: increasing education and awareness
Use aromatherapy to enhance your mood
Substance use disorders: What you need to know