Conversations about what a healthy relationship should look like are important for parents to have with their kids. But often, these conversations can be confusing. Experts weigh in on how to teach your kid what behavior is acceptable when it comes to a partner.

By Alana Bracken
February 10, 2021
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A discovery of what love is will forever be a lifelong endeavor, but for a child, this topic will often come with a lot of questions. Their first significant other may be a few years down the road, but many of the capacities of a romantic relationship take time to grow to maturity.

While a parent can't concretely answer when their little one will find "the one" or explain exactly how they'll know when they found them, they can and should help their child navigate the nuances of healthy relationships from an early age.

It's Not Just Physical

When it comes to love, far too often parents feel the need to explain the physical aspects of a relationship without regard for the emotional side of intimacy. While "the birds and the bees" is a much anticipated—and important—talk for parents to have with their children, many experts believe that young people also need guidance on how to navigate the nuances of romantic love.

"As a culture, we are really backward about romantic love, and we fail miserably to prepare young people for it," says Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D., senior lecturer and faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "We fuss very little about how to help young people with the subtle, tender, courageous, focus-minded work of how to love somebody else."

Credit: Getty Images.

In 2017, Dr. Weissbourd, along with other educators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project, released a report that surveyed 3,000 young people about intimacy and their capacity for romantic relationships. They found many young people struggle to develop healthy romantic relationships and were frustrated with how little their parents formally discussed what a positive one looks like.

The common adage told to teens, "Focus on school, and love and relationships will work themselves out," doesn't turn out that way for many. "Freud said there are two things most important in life: work and love. We have huge industries and schools that are preparing kids for work," notes Dr. Weissbourd. "We do almost nothing to prepare them for love."

Respect, Consent, and Boundaries

Pinpointing what love is or what a healthy relationship looks like can be challenging to explain when a parent is speaking to a toddler or elementary school-aged child. For Angela Lee, director of love is respect, an initiative from the National Domestic Violence Hotline offering education, support, and resources to young people navigating romantic relationships, that conversation begins with precisely that sentiment.

"Defining the word love and how it coincides with respect can be a good starting point," says says. "Respect takes on a different meaning in a romantic relationship, but talking about consent and boundaries and what that looks like can help them to find their own voice."

Lee notes that many qualities in a healthy romantic relationship coincide with close friendships, so parents can capitalize on these conversations in play, such as asking permission to play with a specific toy. Pets can also be an excellent tool for consent and boundaries, as they can teach children how to respect someone's personal space or read when they're uncomfortable.

"It's all about planting the seeds early," says Lee. "As a child gets older, that's when the conversation progresses."

Media's False Perception of Love

Children's perspectives on romance are often shaped by their favorite movies, TV shows, and games. Whether it's the happily ever after for their favorite princess or their first crush on a particular character, kids pick up on the rough idea of romantic love fairly quickly. Without guidance of a parent, however, they often have trouble establishing on their own what a healthy relationship looks like or how to take part in one when they get older.

"When we don't talk about love with children, we abdicate responsibility to the media to teach them about love," explains Dr. Weissbourd.

Children will often ask questions about relationships when faced with these media influences, which can offer parents an opportunity to educate and begin that ongoing conversation. "When it comes up, address it. Ask questions," says Lee. "Mention things like, 'What made you think that was enticing or appropriate? Tell me more about that.'"

Even more so, when kids have questions about a relationship they see in the media that they find uncomfortable, parents can explore what toxic relationships look like in a more approachable way. For example, if a child worries about how the Beast treats Belle at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, parents can talk with them about what they find unsettling and how their child would prefer he treat her.

The Bottom Line

As kids get older and enter into their first relationships, early conversations focused on important elements like respect, boundaries, and consent can not only guide them to make healthy choices in love but will hopefully also establish their parent as a trusted confidante in matters of the heart.

"As a parent, it's ultimately hard to change the underlying trajectories of a relationship—they may have some bad relationships before they get it right—but you can be an anchor and source of support," says Dr. Weissbourd. "You can eventually help them think through why relationships fail and what might help them become more successful in the future."

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