All young women should learn about what to expect from a healthy romantic relationship, and how to identify warning signs of potential physical or emotional abuse. But girls who have experienced trauma, or who are otherwise considered “at risk” due to poverty, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, disability, or mental illness are at heightened risk of engaging in unhealthy sexual behaviors and becoming involved in unhealthy relationships. These tips for teaching girls about healthy dating and relationships can help break that cycle.
Define Healthy Relationships
Help young women understand the characteristics of healthy relationships, whether they are friendships, professional relationships, or romantic relationships. Elements of healthy relationships include:
- Mutual respect: In healthy relationships, each individual values themselves and the other person equally. Healthy relationships maintain a balance in communication and behavior that shows respect for each individual’s opinions, personal space, privacy, time, and other relationships. A person who demands exclusive attention, demands that the other party limit their contact with other friends or family, invades privacy, or, perhaps worst of all, stalks the person they are involved with, is violating the foundation of respect in a relationship.
- Honesty: Lying is not okay in relationships. Girls should be taught how to recognize warning signs of dishonesty, and to disengage from people who lie to them. Neither party should ever feel afraid of being honest with the other person. If a girl is afraid of being honest in a relationship, that’s a big red flag.
- Trust: Along with honesty, a healthy relationship means that the people involved trust each other not to betray confidences, not to belittle them behind their backs, not to brag about intimacy, and of course, not to steal or cheat.
- Communication: Being able to talk about your feelings, what you want or need, what you like to do, and what you don’t like is important in any relationship. Girls should be taught that they are on equal footing in their relationships, and that they shouldn’t have to put up with interruption, dismissal, ridicule, or judgment.
- Compassionate conflict resolution: Healthy relationships are full of compromises. No one gets everything they want all the time. Young women need to understand that they can’t always get their way, but also their interests and needs should not be regarded as less important, either. Healthy relationships require balance.
Have Frank Discussions
Be matter of fact about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, and how to prevent them. It’s much better to give a teen practical information on how to protect themselves than to help a teen find treatment for an STD or deal with the fallout from an unwanted pregnancy. Information on what it takes to raise a child can deter young girls from becoming teenage parents. Knowledge of STD’s and long-term health consequences help young people make better life choices.
Having a crush on someone is almost a rite of passage for most teens. Most crushes end in disillusionment or heartbreak. In the meantime, though, a young woman may experience all the classic symptoms they’ve been told that mean they’re “in love.” Before a girl becomes overwhelmed with a crush, take time to discuss the difference between infatuation and love. Infatuation is often a flash in the pan, whereas love grows and builds slowly over time (even if the parties to the relationship describe it as “love at first sight.”) It’s not possible to truly know someone immediately. Love takes time and understanding, and discovery often demands a re-evaluation of perspectives. So, acknowledge that crushes are kind of delicious and fun, but they are not the foundation for lasting, loving relationships.
More and more these days, girls are establishing and maintaining relationships online. Online relationships are based on limited information. Girls’ online behaviors may create real-life problems offline, like abuse or negative thoughts and perceptions of themselves. They may experience unwelcome advances or sexually explicit pictures and harassment via social media. They need to keep certain personal information private such as their location and address or where they go to school. Talk to them about trust, sex, and intimacy so they make better choices.
Explain That It’s Okay To Wait
Too many teens enter unhealthy dating relationships just because they don’t want to be left out of what they perceive as the social norm. But entering a dating relationship for the wrong reasons risks disappointment or heartbreak. Young women should never abandon their personal goals to chase after a dating relationship. Girls need support for their personal priorities and need to be told it’s okay if “everyone” seems to be dating when they are not. Time is on their side, and they may have more important goals to achieve before spending time dating.
Girls and boys are bombarded by unrealistic, often harmful, messages about dating, relationships, love, and sex from a dizzying array of sources. Television, social media, and even video games all present highly sexualized, violent, or demeaning depictions of relationships that can be confusing for young adults. The best thing those caring for or working with young people can do for them is to model healthy relationships and demonstrate what being treated with respect feels like. Listening, acknowledging feelings, working toward a compromise to resolve conflict, and ensuring that young people feel valued for exactly who they are goes a long way. Ensuring the presence of adult women role models in the lives of young adults is probably among the top tips for teaching girls about healthy dating and relationships.
Finally, let girls know that they don’t have to be in a hurry to grow up. You only get one girlhood, and even if family troubles, poverty, or abuse has taken a toll, girls deserve their time as girls, before they must accept the responsibilities of becoming women. For more help in teaching girls about healthy relationships, take a look at materials specific to girls in the Arise Foundation’s life skills lesson plans for high school students.