Yellow highlighter circling the words As children enter the teen years, caregivers often grow nervous about the prospect of forced conversations about sexual and reproductive health. While such discussions are vitally important, equally crucial – and frequently overlooked – are conversations about relationship health. Many young people have their first romantic relationships in middle school, making this the perfect time to build self-advocacy skills, and to start conversations about recognizing and stopping abuse. Here are a few ways to talk to your child about healthy relationships, and to open the door for future honest conversations.

  1. Point out positive relationship patterns. Help your child recognize specific examples of healthy relationships in your family and community. This does not have to be a long conversation; it can simply be a statement of fact. You might say something like, “Isn’t it great that your uncle goes to all of your aunt’s voice recitals? He’s so supportive of her passion.” Or, “I really like how your friend took the time to talk to their girlfriend. It’s so important to be an active listener, especially in romantic relationships.” As much as possible, include non-heterosexual relationships in your examples. If you, yourself, are not partnered, don’t worry: it’s also productive to talk to your child about what you look for in a partner, or why your past relationships didn’t have the positive traits you needed.
  2. Point out negative relationship patterns. The media is full of unrealistic and, at times, abusive relationships. When watching movies or television shows, point these out to your child. (If you don’t want to ruin the experience of co-watching, you can always talk about it afterwards!) You might say something like, “I didn’t like how that character pretended to be someone else, but still ended up with the girl at the end. Relationships should be honest.” Try to solicit your child’s opinion as well. Do so by asking questions like, “What did you think about the fact that one character cheated on another character? What would you do in that situation?” Helping children think critically about abuse will not only help them stay out of toxic relationships, it will also help them be better partners themselves.
  3. Talk explicitly about consent. Talk to your child about the importance of asking for consent before initiating any kind of physical touch. Model this by asking your child before you show them physical affection, in public or otherwise. Make sure that they know that they can always say no to unwanted touch, even from authority figures or from friends.
  4. Talk explicitly about values. Have conversations with your child about what your family cares about, and how you act on it. While watching a TV, you might say something like, “The character in this show lied to their parents. In our family, we value honesty.” Or you might say, “This politician went back on their campaign promises. In this family, we honor our promises.” Talking generally about what you expect from your child not only instills in them a sense of what kind of partner they should be, it also helps them clarify what they need – and deserve – in a partner.
  5. Group of young people having fun in a restaurantFoster self-acceptance. In middle school, young people go through massive transitions that can significantly alter their sense of self. Help young people appreciate who they are, and to expect others to do the same. You might say things like, “I don’t think friends should make fun of each other for being afraid of something. Fears make you who you are. They don’t make you less special or cool or valuable.” Encourage your child to (safely) pursue their interests, even if their friends don’t share them. Model self-acceptance whenever you can by forgiving yourself for mistakes, or embracing your appearance. You may say something like, “These jeans used to fit me, but now they don’t. I don’t mind though – bodies change, and I like how I look now.” Or, “I said something hurtful to a friend. Luckily, I was able to apologize. I learned a lot from my mistake.” Show your kids that we are all fine the way we are, and that anyone who cannot accept us wholly probably doesn’t deserve our romantic attention.

 

Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.