By Juleen Chevalier, LCSW-C, LICSW
There’s nothing quite like that first taste of love- the thrills of attraction realized and the crushing heartbreak of its end. A passing song or scent and we are instantly transported back in time to those moments of ecstasy and despair.
The adolescent brain (age 16-24 yrs) is neurologically primed for experiencing love and loss in the most intense of ways. The newness of the coupling experience can make it so difficult to sort through what “should” be happening. Likely, at least in part to these factors, we see concerning rates of abusive behaviors (physical or emotional violence, often associated with maintaining power and control) within young adult relationships. Recent studies estimate that 1 in 5 young adults experience some form of relationship violence.
We know that the relationships we have during childhood with our caregivers set the stage for our experience and behavior in adult relationships. So too, albeit to a lesser extent, our first experience of romantic love can have a lasting impact on our future romantic relationships. Unfortunately, a history of abuse in a previous romantic relationship is one of the strongest predictors of abuse in subsequent relationships.
As a parent, you might be thinking that the healthy relationship(s) you’ve engaged in and modeled for your child should do the trick. While it is true that experiencing secure attachment with our caregivers and experiencing healthy dynamics between family members ARE protective factors for intimate partner violence, there are many people who find themselves experiencing emotional/physical violence in their relationship, without previous exposure to abuse. You may also be a parent feeling worried that your experiences will have a detrimental impact on your child, which is not always the case, either!
So how do we help the young people we love create healthy romantic relationships? Put simply – talk openly about relationship experiences! (Easier said than done with young adults, right?!).
Here are 6 parenting tips for discussions about healthy relationships:
1. Approach conversations casually and with an attitude of curiosity, support, and respect, embracing the mindset that your young adult’s choices (in a partner or in actions) make good sense to them, in the moment.
2. Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions about relationship experiences that lead to discussing the emotional experience of the current relationship, as well as identifying ideal relationship experiences.
“What’s it like when you disagree?”
“What would it be like if they were more understanding when you ________?”
3. Talk about consent, particularly what it looks like to ask for consent and give consent- for sexual/physical touch experiences, as well in other aspects of relationships:
“What’s it like when you’re not sure if they want to do something that you want to do?”
“What do you do when you think they want to do something that you don’t feel like doing?”
4. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about concerns.
“Have you ever been hurt or threatened by someone?”
“Do you ever think about hurting yourself? Hurting someone else?”
5. Resist the impulse to forbid a relationship…most of us know that this rarely, if ever, goes well. However, in the height of concern for the people we love, we sometimes feel compelled to do the “tough love” approach- either forbidding the relationship (“You are never to see them again.”) or leveraging our own relationship (“Choose them or me.”) in the attempt to pull someone away from a relationship that we deem unhealthy or objectionable.
*note: this tip is not referencing situations where an adult is attempting a relationship with a minor, or other abuse of power scenarios, where putting safety boundaries in place may be necessary.
6. Let them know it’s okay to not feel like talking about this stuff with you, but also that (1) they’re not alone, (2) hurtful experiences are not their fault, and (3) you’ll help them get connected to someone they DO feel comfortable talking to.
If you’re noticing signs of distress (change in behavior, mood, appearance, sleep, activity, routine, social connections, etc) in a young adult you care about, keep in mind that unhealthy/abusive relationship dynamics could be a possible underlying cause. Seek support for yourself, and help your young adult get connected to resources.
While love (and young love particularly) always has its highs and lows, healthy love doesn’t hurt!