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The sex talk isn’t enough: How parents can teach teens about healthy relationships

Kids are missing out on having important conversations with parents about how to love and be loved. (iStock)

Parents fret for years about having “the talk” with their kids. That talk, of course, being about sex. But one thing that is getting very lost in those conversations is how to have a healthy romantic relationship. It’s not enough to have the sex talk, we have to have the love talk, too. Without it, we risk our kids being in abusive, manipulative relationships, or missing out on a truly wonderful aspect of life.

According to a report released today by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, parents worry a great deal about the hookup culture, but ignore the fact that young people are unprepared to learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships.

“This whole area has been terribly neglected,” says Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common project. Without conversations about healthy relationships, parents are also neglecting to teach their children about misogyny and sexual harassment. “Adults seem not to be facing it squarely. It’s concerning,” Weissbourd adds.

If parents think kids don’t want to hear it from them, they should reconsider: 70 percent of the 18- to 25-year-olds who responded to the report’s survey said they wanted more information from parents about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship. And 65 percent said they wanted guidance about it in a sex ed or health class at school. But both parents and educators seem to focus on abstinence, how not to get pregnant or how to avoid a sexually transmitted disease. In doing so, parents are missing out on having important conversations about how to love and be loved.

Here, Weissbourd and the report’s authors offer five ways to teach kids and young adults about healthy relationships:

Be a romantic philosopher

Why? Young people and adults mean very different things when they say they’re in love. Because our understandings of love are vague and varied, young people may confuse love with infatuation, lust, idolization or obsession. They may think, for example, that they are in love with someone because they can’t stop thinking about them. Or they may confuse love with the boost in self-esteem they experience when someone is romantically interested in them.

Try this:  Speak with your teen about the many forms of love. Explain what you mean when you say that you are in love with someone. Let your child understand that they may define being in love differently than someone else and that there is no right definition of being in love. But there are ways of knowing whether intense feelings for someone else are likely to lead to healthy or unhealthy romantic relationships. Explore with your teen why and how love can be deeply meaningful and change the course of our lives.

Also: Ask your child how they think about different types of intense feelings toward someone. Talk about how people can be attracted to, or preoccupied with, other people for a range of positive and negative reasons, and discuss the importance of understanding why your teen might be attracted to someone else. Are they attracted to someone at least partly because they’re kind, generous and honest? Or are they attracted to someone because that person is elusive, seems unattainable or mistreats them in some way? Discussing these questions can give them tools for determining whether a relationship is likely to be healthy or unhealthy.

Talk about the markers of healthy and unhealthy relationships

Why? Teens may not know whether they’re in a healthy or unhealthy relationship. They also may be unsure if their worries, feelings of disappointment or criticisms of their partner are normal.

Try this: Examples of both healthy and unhealthy relationships are everywhere. Talk to your teen about couples you both know, and representations of relationships in the media. Which are healthy? Which are harmful? Why? If your teen is in a relationship, you might ask whether it makes them more or less self-respecting, hopeful, caring and generous.

Talk about the skills needed to maintain healthy relationships

Why? Maintaining healthy relationships requires a range of skills, including the ability to communicate honestly and effectively, to jointly solve problems, to measure anger and to be generous. Healthy relationships also benefit from being able to take someone else’s perspective in a deep way and to step back and view the relationship and its dynamics, strengths and challenges.

Try this: Discuss with your child various examples of caring, vibrant relationships. These examples might be relatives or friends who you think have mature romantic relationships, or could be couples portrayed in books, television, movies. You might watch with your teen the compelling marriages depicted in shows such as “This Is Us,” “Black-ish” and “Friday Night Lights.”

Consider sharing lessons from your own relationships

Why? We can mine our experiences for insights about mature and immature love, and why relationships do and don’t work. Teens are often interested in our experiences, partly because they’re sorting out how they’re like or unlike us.

Try this: Think about what your relationships have taught you. What was healthy about them? Unhealthy? What attitudes or behaviors would you change if you could? Share with your teen any lessons you’ve learned about the skills, attitudes and sensitivities that it takes to maintain a healthy romantic relationship.

Engage young people in ethical questions connected to romantic and sexual relationships

Why? High school and college students enthusiastically plunge into ethical questions about romantic relationships: What do I do if I know my friend is cheating on his girlfriend who is also my friend? Is it exploitation when a senior hooks up with a first year? Reflecting on such questions can help young people develop better relationships, but also help them develop complex thinking and problem-solving skills, and learn to ethically reason when dealing with conflicting loyalties, and take up questions about human rights and dignity.

Try this: Together with your child, puzzle through answers to ethical questions. Start by listening to how your teen would answer these questions, then share your own thoughts. Often there is not one right answer. Consider how to resolve these dilemmas in ways that are as fair, honest and caring for all people involved.

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More reading:

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6 ways schools and parents can teach kids about love