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How We Can Support Youth to Learn What They Need to Build Healthy Relationships

February 27, 2024

Filed in: Health & Wellbeing | Peers

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​By Allyson Nesmith, Digital Content Contributor

Adolescence is a window of profound social learning–and young people are particularly eager to learn about and from their romantic relationships. But advice from parents, social media, and school-based programs (where they exist) often miss the deeper questions about emotional intimacy.

So, how can we help youth learn what they need to know—and what they want to know—about building healthy relationships?

This was the question tackled at our third Love in Adolescence themed webinar by panelists Thao Ha, Associate Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, Ross Szabo, Wellness Director at the UCLA Geffen Academy, and Namrata Poola, UCLA student and member of our Youth Scientific Council on Adolescence (YSCA). Adriana Galván, our Co-Executive Director, moderated the discussion.

“From all the media we consume, there’s an idea that it’s really important to find someone or to get into a relationship,” said Namrata, “but there’s not as much of a discussion of how to be in a relationship or maintain that connection.”

To help, our panelists shared tips for how we as adults can offer support:

Normalize conversations about relationships from a young age.

“It’s important to talk about relationships now, because it’s the foundation for the relationships they’ll have later—with themselves, with people, with their work,” said Adriana.

“Asking youth for their opinion can help the conversation feel more inclusive, and less like a lecture,” Ross explained.

Ross shared an example of how he talks to youth about relationships, explaining that he’ll ask questions like: ‘Here are the different love languages. What do you think about this? Here’s how the media influences relationships. What do you think?’

Discussing difficult topics like heartbreak with youth can also be helpful, especially before they enter a romantic relationship. “I wish I would’ve known how painful it was going to be, but that life would still go on afterwards and that it’s not the end of the world,” said Thao. “and also understanding how to break-up with someone in a way that is respectful. You discover that you don’t fit with someone, but then what do you do?”

Provide youth with language and definitions that they can use in a relationship, so that they can understand what is happening.

“They need to be able to see what’s happening and what’s going on, so that they can talk about it,” said Ross. “For example, it’s important to help youth identify the type of relationship they’re in—is it codependent? Independent? Interdependent? Ask other questions like, ‘What were the ways you felt and seen and loved when you were younger? What’s important to you?’”

Asking these questions can help youth to understand how to be in a relationship with another person, while also retaining their own identity.

Talk about the relationships that youth see.

“It seems like humans are hardwired to talk about other people’s relationships and not necessarily their own,” said Ross. “If you’re worried about having direct conversations about your kid’s relationship, talk about the relationships they see.”

These could be relationships they see in any context, whether it’s within the family, their school, their communities or amongst their peers.

Model healthy behaviors yourself.

“Kids do need to see models of healthy relationships, and models of healthy decision-making,” said Ross. “If you have dinner with your kids twice a week, and model ‘This is how we communicate, and this is how we look after each other as a family,’ those things can be helpful.”

However, not all adult relationships are healthy (and are actually often complicated), due to issues of independence, divorce, break-ups, fights, etc. Even so, said Ross, “you don’t have to have a perfect relationship to model behaviors of how to be seen, heard, understood and connected to.”

Don’t be dismissive about early relationships for young people.

“It’s not puppy love,” said Adriana. “It’s really meaningful love, that maybe looks different than when you’re in college or an older adult, but it is so impactful for later.”

“The joys of falling in love, mattering to another person and being able to provide care are some different roles than teens have had before with their parents and their friends,” Thao said. “There’s this tension between becoming more and more intimate, and also being more and more at risk for all of the pain that also comes with that.”

Consider the impact of online spaces on youth romantic relationships.

Thao described a paper published by one of her graduate students, in which they asked young people to imagine that their partner liked an Instagram picture of someone else, and how they would react.

“Just imagining it elicited a lot of feelings of jealousy and feeling upset,” said Thao. “It’s important to realize that this [social media] is just one tiny piece of an adolescent’s day that can be very triggering. It’s also important to realize that these are micro moments in which a lot is happening at the same time cognitively, emotionally and in their relationship.”

Be authentic.

“There’s no one who can read authenticity quicker than a teenager,” said Ross. “If you’re awkward and they sense that awkwardness, they could potentially misjudge it and assume that you don’t care, or that you’re only doing this because you have to.”

​Watch the full webinar below!

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