How to teach your kids about healthy relationships
Are you worried that your child may be engaging in an unhealthy relationship? You’ve come to the right place. As a parent, you want to ensure that your child avoids negative connections and learns to foster healthy ones. And you likely want to pass on the wisdom you’ve gained to save them from heartbreak. But where do you even begin? How do you help them navigate the complexities of relationships so that they can make informed decisions?
By starting the conversation early and talking to our kids about things like empathy, healthy boundaries, and problem-solving, we can positively impact their ability to form meaningful, rewarding bonds for their entire lives. Creating rewarding relationships isn’t about being perfect; it’s about practice. So let’s break down the top ways you can teach and model meaningful connections for your child as they grow up.
Talk about healthy vs. unhealthy relationships
Let’s set the groundwork here because defining relationships can get murky. While relationships often aren’t all good or all bad, it’s important to talk to your child about the basic differences between the two, and everything in-between.
A healthy relationship can be defined as a dynamic in which both people feel emotionally and physically safe, accepted as they are, and respected. Signs of a healthy relationship include honesty, trust, open communication, equality, safety, and ongoing support.
In unhealthy relationships, one or both people may feel scared, anxious, guilty, ashamed, or unsafe in the dynamic. Some signs of a not-so-great relationship are jealousy, fear, blame, control, abuse, pressure, and unpredictability.
It’s also important to bring up non-negotiable, red-flag behaviors that a child should never tolerate in relationships. This should include any form of physical or emotional abuse, harassment, ignoring of boundaries, or disrespect. Let them know explicitly that they can always come to you for help if they experience any of these things.
Try offering up age-appropriate examples of experiences you’ve had throughout your life. Did you ever have a friendship as a child that made you feel anxious or insecure? Think about why and share it with your child. Or maybe you had a friendship that made you feel brave and happy — share that one too!
Then ask your child, “What are the most important things to you in a relationship?” You can give examples like spending time together, sharing toys or snacks, laughter, etc.
Opening up the conversation about what makes up both positive and negative relationships will build a dialogue with your child so that they know they can talk to you about this topic in the future, especially when things might get a little tricker. Let them know you are a safe space and that you’ll always be there to support them, no matter what.
Help to build empathy
Empathy, or the ability to imagine what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, is a key ingredient when it comes to building meaningful relationships. Elementary school-age kids are capable of empathy, but typically need some guidance.
Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, and for some, it can be hard to actually feel what another person is feeling. You can help your child focus on empathy by asking them to take note when someone around them is experiencing a big feeling, such as sadness or frustration. Are they able to put themselves in their shoes to better understand what they’re going through? Have they ever felt a similar feeling?
Try asking how they would like to be treated during those instances and remind them that their actions can affect other people. For instance, if they take a toy from a friend without asking, it can hurt them. How would they feel if someone did that to them? How can they do it differently next time? Remind them that everyone has their own feelings and gets to make their own decisions, and don’t forget to give them positive feedback when you see them practicing empathy.
Model healthy connection and communication
A great way to teach your kid about meaningful relationships is by modeling affection, acts of kindness, and gratitude. Try out a few behaviors in front of your child:
- Say “I love you” and show affection to a member of your family or a friend
- Surprise your child with their favorite meal or dessert
- Leave a love note in their lunchbox or on their bathroom mirror
- Tell your child a specific thing that you appreciate about them
- Make a gratitude list together and include the people you care about most
- Let them see you resolve conflict in a constructive way and talk about it afterward
We know it can be hard to do with buzzing phones, looming deadlines, and a never-ending to-do list, but try being an active, engaged listener when your child is speaking to you. You can even repeat back to them what they said so that they know you’re fully present and they’ve been heard.
Big feelings are inevitable, so when your child seems upset, help them to come up with “I” statements to describe and take ownership of their feelings. You can use this example: “I feel ___ when ___.” For younger kids, you may ask them to draw out how they’re feeling, reassuring them that there are no wrong or bad feelings.
Helping your child to find and use their authentic voice to describe what they’re experiencing will help them to take ownership of their feelings. Encourage them to take a moment to check in with themselves and their needs before automatically acting out or blaming others. And if you lose your cool from time to time, use it as a learning opportunity to show that you are human and that sometimes emotions are difficult to navigate — even for adults!
Build confidence through boundaries
This is a big one. Talking openly about boundaries, consent, and body autonomy can help your child to better respect themselves and their needs, as well as the needs and limits of others. This simply starts with learning that when someone says “no” to something, it should be heard and stopped.
Maybe their brother doesn’t like having their hair touched, or a friend doesn’t want to share their special toy. Use these opportunities to talk to your child about hearing and respecting others' boundaries and starting to set their own. Make sure that they know that when they say “no,” they should be heard, and if they’re not, they should come to you or a trusted adult. This will become the foundation for more mature conversations surrounding consent later in life.
We know this is uncomfortable to talk about, but it needs to be said. Tell your child very clearly that they are in control of their own body and that if anyone ever touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, to always tell a trusted adult. And let them know that no one should touch areas of their body that are private. Knowing that they can come to you and that you’ll never be mad at them for telling you will help to keep them safe.
Empower your child to articulate their needs and limits and open up about a time when someone crossed one of your boundaries and how you navigated it. Help them make a plan for what to do when someone isn’t respecting their boundaries so that they feel more prepared. For example, ask, “What are some ways you could let your friend know that you don’t like when she tickles you without asking?” Offer up phrases like “Please don’t do that” or “I don’t like when you _____.”
Of course, your child needs their independent space to learn and grow, but never stop asking curious questions and staying involved in their social life. It’s a good idea to get to know who your child is spending time with, along with their friends’ parents. You can pose questions like, “What is it like hanging out with _____?” or “What are the qualities that make _____ a good friend for you?”
If possible, offer to host get-togethers so that you can observe their interactions and create a safe space for kids to gather, especially as they get older. Continue to check in with your child’s teacher, coaches, or any other trusted adult in their lives.
Helping your child build beneficial relationships can seem like an overwhelming job, but try to keep it as simple for yourself as possible. Ask questions, actively listen, and trust your instinct if something ever seems off. While you can’t protect your child from hard things (remember how we talked about building resilience?), you can continue showing up for them as they navigate their most meaningful relationships. If you need help along the way, Bend is always here to offer specialized support to you and your family.