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Talking with teens about healthy relationships

Teen boy and girl sitting next to one another on a couch

Relationships are a vital part of life no matter what age we are. They help us learn about ourselves and the world around us, teach us valuable lessons and help us feel a sense of belonging. Teenagers are especially focused on peer relationships because they help build an individual’s sense of identity and are an important part of to their normal, healthy development. Whether they are engaging in friendships or romantic relationships, teens need guidance from trusted adults. Here at Parent-ish, we’d like to share some information and resources to make giving that guidance a little easier. 

What is a healthy relationship? 

This is a big question and a complex topic that can’t possibly be captured in one blog. However, at its best, a healthy relationship is a connection with another person who encourages you to be your best self and aligns with your values and goals in life. Relationships are unique and no two look alike, but it is helpful to reflect on how you feel around another person and notice if any patterns arise.  

Here are some questions to help your child reflect on their friendships or romantic interests: 

  • How do you feel after spending time with this person? 
  • Do they help you or encourage you to make choices that align with your values and goals, or do you find yourself regretting choices you make when you’re with them? 
  • Do they make you feel safe, both emotionally and physically? 
  • Do they build you up, or do you feel torn down or belittled? 
  • Do their words and actions align, or is there a mismatch between what they say and do? 

These questions can also be adapted to help your teen reflect on whether they are acting in positive, healthy ways toward the people in their lives.  

Why healthy relationships matter 

Relationships shape who we are and how we interact with the world, for better or worse For teens, healthy relationships are vital for healthy development and transition to adulthood. It is developmentally normal and expected for teens to gradually spend more time with peers and less time with family. Teens generally seek out peers who they feel some kind of connection with. Who they spend time with greatly influences their behaviors and choices. If they spend a lot of time with friends who don’t value the same things they do, their path in life can become influenced by their friends’ values and choices. Spending time with people who share their goals and vision for the future makes it easier for them to reach their destination. Also, establishing healthy relationship patterns as adolescents sets them up for healthier relationships as adults. 

What can parents do to encourage their kids to have healthy relationships? 

Talk to your children early and often about their relationships. Just like we can’t capture all things about healthy relationships in one blog, don’t expect to cover everything about healthy relationships in one conversation. Begin asking questions about their friendships and peer relationships as preschoolers, through elementary school and then into their teen years. Conversations about healthy relationships shouldn’t start when they begin dating. The content of the conversations can evolve as they age. 

Tips for talking about healthy relationships 

  • Talk with your kids about their gut instincts. Help them learn to trust their intuition. You can say something like, “If you are playing with a friend and they ask you to do something that makes you feel funny, trust that feeling. You don’t need to go against what your gut is telling you.” 
  • When they come home from being somewhere without you like a friend’s house or group hangout, one question you can ask is, “did anything happen that made you feel strange or uncomfortable?” If the answer is related to something that the friend or family did that is different or unusual relative to your own family routine, this opens the opportunity to talk about different family structures or rules (for example, “different families have different rules”). If something more concerning is shared, this gives an opportunity to identify a potentially dangerous or inappropriate situation. No matter what is shared, this conversation should occur in a safe, non-judgmental way. The goal is to partner with your child to learn how to navigate the world as safely and responsibly as possible.  
  • Practice what to say or do when they’re in an uncomfortable situation. This gives them more confidence so they are not caught off guard when something happens. 
  • Discuss the difference between less than ideal behaviors and deal breakers. Help them think about boundaries and limits. Guide them to reflect on whether a relationship is important to them and what they are willing to do to continue the relationship. 

How to overcome obstacles while talking with teens 

Conversations with teenagers come with their fair share of eye rolling. That doesn’t mean you should give up on the dialogue. Give your teen and yourself some grace and do the best you can. Remember: 

  • Eye rolling can be a good sign. It means your kids have heard you say this before. It’s familiar enough to them that they can carry it with them when you’re not present. It’s OK to be a broken record. 
  • You don’t have to have all the answers. Point them to helpful resources like or, websites dedicated to preventing teen dating violence. Have them play Cool Not Cool, a game that shares other teens’ perspectives on healthy relationships. The game can be a good prompt for conversation.  
  • If you don’t feel capable of having these conversations with your child, identify a trusted adult in your child’s life who would be willing and able to have the conversations. It could be a relative, a family friend, a mentor or another person you both agree is a good fit. Brainstorm together who you’d both be comfortable with. 
  • If you are in an unhealthy relationship yourself, start to reflect on what kind of relationships you want for your child. In an age-appropriate way, let your teen know what you want for them and be honest about your relationship challenges. You don’t have to have it all figured out in order to help your child build healthy connections with others. For help understanding and talking with your children about domestic violence, use these tip sheets from Futures Without Violence.
  • Note: If you are experiencing violence, please seek help by calling 911 or contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233 or   

Safety tips for teens 

Things that pose safety risks to our kids evolve as they get older. We may think of trying to prevent major playground injuries in toddlers. For teens, relationships can pose safety risks, like dating violence and sexual coercion, that should be acknowledged and discussed with them. While it may seem uncommon, dating violence is experienced by 1 in 4 teens. And human trafficking, an extreme example of sexual coercion, is an unfortunate and real risk. Help your teen stay safe with some ground rules and guidelines.  

  • Safe online behavior: Ideally, everyone your teen communicates with is someone they know in person. Online profiles are easy to fake and leave room for exploitation. If your teen’s friends introduce them to someone else online, encourage your teen to ask if their friend knows the person offline and if not, considering avoiding communication. (See AAP guidance about encouraging safe and healthy relationship with media.).  
  • Discuss red flags in online communication (for example: vulgar, inappropriate language; requests for personal information like what school they go to, what city they live in, etc.; requests for pictures of any part of their body; asking to meet up in person; asking to not tell parents about their relationship, etc.). See AAP guidance for talking with teens about sexting 
  • Discuss that your teen should not meet up with anyone they met online without your knowledge and permission, and without bringing an adult you trust 
  • Use extra caution around age differences. Discuss the risks and boundaries of dating someone of a different age.  
  • Educate yourself and your teen about the dangers of human trafficking.  
  • Help them reflect on the safety of their relationship with prompts from Futures Without Violence and 
  • Share this video that explains consent clearly with a helpful metaphor. 

More resources for helping teens build healthy relationships 

  • The Trevor Project - Resources for LGBTQ+ teens and all teens 
  • Coaches Corner - Information for coaches on how to teach healthy relationships to boys 
  • ACT for youth – Program activities and curricula for teaching relationship skills to teens 
  • Sex Positive Families – Resources and book recommendations to help inform parent/adult discussions with children and teens about healthy relationships  

Helping your child build healthy relationships will not only set them up for future success, but also strengthen the relationship you have with them. Hopefully, you feel more equipped now to have the conversations that matter. We believe in you.  

Adolescent Medicine, Clinical Pharmacology

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Research Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Kansas School of Medicine