How to support healthy, young relationships

Parents, brace yourselves. One day your tween or teen will come home looking love struck. At some point, Cupid will fire an arrow his or her way. When that happens, you'll do yourself a favor if you're prepared. And preparation begins from a child's birth. Oh, and the pressure's on because…

…your child's first loves or romantic relationships usually will model the relationships they see around them and that they experience themselves.

Learned love

Betsy Cairo, executive director of Look Both Ways, Inc., says, "One of the first places teens learn about relationships is from watching what their parents/guardians/grandparents do. So, it is important that adults look at their own relationship to see what example they are setting. This can be eye opening, humbling and maybe even painful, but it is true. If children grow up around an abusive relationship where both partners stay despite the abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual) then they may think that this is how things are, and when their relationship becomes something similar, they do not think of it as unhealthy. It should be stressed to kids that healthy relationships take work. Communication and respect of each other and of themselves is not just important, but a requirement."

Another way to help your children develop health relationship skills is by treating them in healthful ways. Talk to them respectfully. Touch them appropriately. Teach them it's okay to name and express their feelings.

Kari Weiler, Fort Collins marriage and family therapist, says, even in your child's earliest friendships, it's helpful when parents point out bad behaviors versus calling your child's friends bad. Point out manipulative or hurtful behavior, without telling your child their friend is manipulative or mean.

Also, don't minimize your tween's or teen's proclamation that he or she is "in love."

Cairo says, "Young romance is often met with cynicism. We do not believe that young people can be in love. We need to recognize that they are capable of being in love with someone, but that the feeling, definition or experience of what love is will change over time. Do not diminish this for young people. Allow them to feel so that they are comfortable coming to you for information or a shoulder to cry on."

Safety first

A critical aspect of a healthy relationship is its level of safety. Healthy relationships should allow for people to be themselves, and for them to express feelings and thoughts without shame or belittlement. Discussions that take place in healthy relationships should not spark arguments. Relationships also should be consensual.

Weiler recommends parents begin early to talk to their children about safety in relationships. "Children should be taught to ask or grant permission before touching or being touched. If they see someone crying, children should ask if that person wants a hug. Before holding someone's hand, they should ask if holding hands is okay with the other person. Before kissing someone, they should ask if the other person wants to be kissed." The bottom line: teach consent.

Sex

Parents would be remiss not to believe that their offspring will want to or have the urge to have sex. After all, the act of sex is part of being a mammal and is naturally instinctual. So, talking about sex is critical and it should be ongoing.

"I think it's important to have 'The Sex Talk' over time. It's not a one-event thing," says Weiler. "It's also important to call body parts by their real, biological names, like penis versus wiener, or vagina versus peepee. Beyond that, listen to your kids when they begin asking questions about sex. Give them the information they really want to know, but don't overwhelm them and don’t preach."

Cairo says that some questions you may get are: "What is sex? (It can be anything you want it to be.) Why do people have sex? (Because it feels good or because they want to procreate.) What can happen if I have sex? (You might contract a sexually transmitted disease, get pregnant or feel regret. But you also might like it and feel connected to another person in a way you don't feel connected to anyone else.). Those new to sex also should know it is not a way to make a relationship stronger.”

Alternative love

In today's society, it's more acceptable to be open about romance outside the mainstream, heterosexual box. Therefore, "it's critical to remember when talking to tweens/teens about dating to avoid speaking in a heterosexual bias," says Cairo. "Adults often automatically conclude that when their child speaks to them about a 'crush' that they assume it is with the opposite gender. But that might not be the case. Parents should and must keep an open mind."

Talk and listen

At the end of the day, parents should model healthy relationships and communicate with their kids about everything. Cairo says, "Most importantly, adults need to talk early, talk often, talk accurately, talk honestly, and do not forget to listen."