Your teen may start having their first big romantic relationships during high school. Here’s what you can do to help them have healthier, happier relationships, and deal with the responsibilities that go along with it — like consent and communication.
What should I keep in mind?
Many teens start having serious romantic relationships during high school and early college. Crushes, first kisses and hook-ups, and first heartbreaks — these are big emotional moments. Even though it may sound like puppy love, and even though these early relationships usually don’t last longer than 3 months or so, they’re important for your teen.
Early relationships can teach teens lessons for future relationships. Unhealthy relationships can lead to emotional and physical harm. Your teen’s first romantic relationships are a good opportunity for you to help them understand what it means to be in healthy relationships, so they can continue to have healthy, happy relationships throughout their life.
Be your teen’s go-to for relationship advice. Don’t wait until they’re in a relationship to talk about consent and what’s healthy and what’s not. It’s never too early to get your messages about healthy relationships out there. Plus, some teens’ sexual experiences start with “hook-ups,” meaning sexual encounters without monogamy or any commitments — rather than more traditional dating.
When they’re in a relationship, stay involved. Ask questions and be a caring listener. If you can make yourself one of their go-to people for advice and support, they’ll be better off. Get to know the person they’re in a relationship with — and get to know their parents or caretakers. When parents know the person their teen is dating and the parents of that person, the teen is less likely to have sex before they’re ready.
Worried that you haven’t been a good role model? Don’t. Not every parent has a perfect record when it comes to healthy relationships. But being open and honest with your teen about your values, and what kind of respect, love, and honesty your teen deserves in their relationship can go a long way. Plus, you can model good communication with your teen so they know what respect and love feel like.
How do I help my teen have healthy relationships?
High school is when many teens start having romantic relationships. These relationships may seem silly or unimportant — especially since they usually don’t last more than 3 months. But for a teen, they feel just as real as adult relationships.
You can play a big role in helping your teen understand what a healthy relationship looks like. You can help them expect good communication, respect, trust, fairness, honesty, and equality.
Start these conversations before your teen is in a relationship. Ask them questions about what they think makes a good relationship. If it makes sense, tell them stories about your life — how you knew someone was right or wrong for you, and what kinds of things you expect in a relationship. Show them you value their opinion, and keep the door open to more conversations about romantic relationships by talking about couples on TV, in movies, or in the world around them.
If you find out they’re in a relationship, here are some questions you can ask to help them figure out if their relationship is healthy:
Do you talk about your feelings with each other?
Do you trust each other?
Are you able to work through disagreements?
Do you listen to each other’s ideas?
Are you proud of one another?
Do you want each other to spend time with their own friends and family?
Do you both admit when you’re wrong?
Do you both forgive mistakes?
Do you both compromise?
Do you always feel safe around each other?
Anyone who can answer “yes” to all of these questions is probably in a healthy relationship. Discuss these questions, and listen to what they think. Remind them that you love them, and that they can always talk about their relationship with you.
You may want to discourage your teen from dating anyone much younger or older. When teens date someone more than 2 years older or younger than themselves, they have a higher chance of having an unequal relationship, where one person isn’t respected. They also have a higher chance of having sex and an unintended pregnancy.
You can also help your teen stay healthy when a relationship ends. These first relationships often end with one or both people heartbroken, so your teen may need a big hug. Let them know that grief at the end of a relationship is normal, and that it’s okay to be sad. Remind them of their good qualities and tell them you’re proud of them.
Make sure your teen knows that getting revenge (by gossiping, bullying, or making private messages public online) is never okay — no matter how much things hurt.
How do I talk to my teen about peer pressure and making good decisions?
Your teen gets lots of ideas about what’s normal and okay from their peers. But talking with them about your expectations, setting boundaries, and staying involved in their life can help them make good decisions.
These are some ways to make your teen less likely to take risks like drinking, smoking, having unprotected sex, or having sex before they’re ready:
Ask them where they’re going when they leave the house.
Ask them to tell you if they’re going somewhere after school or work.
Don’t allow them to spend too much time with other teens without an adult around.
Find out who they’re spending time with.
Ask them about their friendships, and stay up to date on their friends’ lives.
Meet as many of their friends and friends’ parents as possible.
Set a curfew and ask them to call if they’re going to be late.
Try to talk from a place of curiosity and care about their life, rather than suspicion or strictness. Still, be clear about your expectations and check in regularly to be sure those expectations are met.
You can help your teen cope with peer pressure by helping them separate fact from fiction. For example, teens may think “everybody’s doing it” when it comes to sex, drugs, or alcohol. But in reality, less than half of all teens do those things.
You can also help your teen resist urges to take risks by reminding them how important their future is. Teens often take risks because of short-term gains — like having fun, seeming cool, or feeling grown up for a night. Reminding them about their goals and dreams for the future can help them stay focused and safe.
How do I talk about healthy and effective communication skills?
You can’t have a healthy relationship without healthy communication. You can teach your teen to communicate with respect, honesty, and fairness. Healthy communication skills start with how you and your teen talk to each other. Here are some ways you can talk with your teen and ask them to talk with you:
Use "I statements.” "I feel ___ when you ___" works better than "You're making me ___." Don’t blame or accuse them of trying to be hurtful.
Be clear and upfront about what you want. No one can read your mind, so tell them what you think, feel, and need.
Don’t push aside your feelings. Bring up things that bother you early on so they don’t build up and become bigger problems. Communicate early and often.
Build trust. Keep your word and try not to break promises, or make ones you can’t keep. Take what they say at face value and assume they mean well, too — unless they’ve given you a reason not to.
Ask questions. If you don't understand what they're saying or why, ask questions. Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t yell or use insults. Getting angry or defensive during an argument is totally normal. But if you’re feeling upset or angry, take a break until you cool off.
Be willing to apologize. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying you’re sorry (and meaning it) goes a long way in helping to move on after a disagreement.
If your teen has a hard time figuring out what they want to say, or feels nervous telling a friend or romantic partner about their feelings, encourage them to write down their feelings. Offer to let them practice with you, or tell them to try practicing with someone else they trust.
How do I talk to my teen about sexual consent?
Consent means asking for permission to do anything sexual with another person. Teens need to know that asking for consent is the first thing you do before touching anyone in a sexual way. And they need to learn how to ask for consent and respect their partner’s answer.
Talking with your teen about consent is about keeping them safe and helping them avoid hurting someone else. Parents of young women often worry about the safety of their daughters and focus on teaching them how to avoid being sexually assaulted. But you need to talk to your teen about consent no matter what gender they are — not just if she’s a young woman. All teens are safer when they can learn about what consent is and how to ask for it.
You can start by making sure you’re familiar with what consent means. Consent doesn’t just mean “no one said no.” It means asking, “Can I do _____?” and the other person saying “yes” in response.
It also means the person saying “yes” isn’t being pressured, coerced, or forced into saying it, and they aren’t drunk or high.
You don’t have to wait until your teen is having sex to talk about consent. In fact, it’s better for them to understand what it means and how important it is before they get into that stuff.
You can start the conversation lots of different ways:
Talk about where consent was missing from scenes on TV shows or in movies.
Talk about news stories around consent or sexual assault and ask for your teen’s opinion.
Ask them if their friends ever talk about it, and what they think about that.
It’s also important to understand the role that peer pressure can play. Teens often believe they’ll be more popular if they have sex, which can lead teens into having sex when they don’t really want to, or pressuring someone into having sex with them.
You can remind your teen what you think sex should really be about — whether that means feeling good, sharing your love, or whatever it is you believe. And let them know that anyone who pressures them into sex isn’t a good person to hang out with.
It’s also important to for them to know that it’s never okay for a teacher, counselor, boss, mentor, relative, or older person in their life to be sexual with them. Make sure they know they can come to you if an adult (or anyone else in their life) makes them feel uncomfortable.
How do I help my teen who’s been sexually assaulted or abused?
Finding out that your teen has been sexually assaulted or raped is devastating. Sexual assault and rape are often life-changing, traumatizing events. And in that moment, your teen needs you more than ever.
Here’s what you can do to support them:
Listen. Believe them. Remind them that they’re not alone, and that you love them very much.
Remind them that they’re not in trouble, and it’s not their fault. It’s a good thing they told you what’s going on. Don’t judge or blame them for what happened — even if you think they did things they shouldn’t have. Remember that the blame is on the person who’s committed the crime, and not on the victim.
Help them get health care. If it just happened, they need to go to a hospital or doctor for medical attention ASAP. You can offer to drive them and be there with them at their side. As time goes by, talking with a licensed counselor or therapist, or joining a community support group, can help them heal. Your nearest Planned Parenthood health center can connect you with services in your area.
Don’t pressure or force them into anything they don’t want to do. It’s up to your teen to decide if they want to report the assault to the police or other authorities. If they do decide to report it, you can help them navigate the system.
How do I help my teen who’s in an unhealthy or abusive relationship?
It’s terrifying to think that your child could be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Unhealthy or abusive relationships can lead to serious consequences, including injury, long-term emotional trauma, and even death. Any kind of relationship may be unhealthy, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Girls can be abusive, and boys can be abused.
Worried that your teen might be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship? Here are some of the signs:
One person in the relationship is controlling the other (like keeping tabs on where they are)
Signs of depression or anxiety (like a big change in their appetite, sleep, or interests)
Your teen stops spending time with other friends or family
Violence against other people or animals
The most important thing you can do is let your teen know that no matter what, you love them and you want to keep them safe. Abusive relationships are the fault of the abuser, and not the victim. So don’t blame your teen for their involvement if they’re the one being abused.
Instead, let them know they can talk to you about what’s going on. Remind them of the kind of respect and love they deserve. And when they tell you something their partner has done that’s wrong, focus on the action instead of blaming the person.
Encourage your teen to break it off with them. If they choose to stay with that person, or leave once and then go back to them, your teen needs to feel like they can still come to you, and that they won’t be in trouble with you. It often takes several times of breaking up and getting back together before someone leaves an abusive partner for good.
You can read more about how to help your teen at Love Is Respect.