Adults can find it challenging to talk with teens and young adults about relationships. Experience brings with it a perspective that can sometimes make it difficult to connect with someone who is in (or about to start) their first romantic relationship. It’s important; however, to try and recall those days of uncertainty, infatuation, passion, and confusion.
Here are a few things caring adult allies can do to help set a respectful tone for communication with young people about relationships:
Recall your first relationships. Do you remember how it felt to have a crush or go out on a date for the first time? Try not to remember it with your adult “lens,” but with the strength and authenticity of a 15- or 16-year old. Recall or imagine the intensity of early romances and how stressful it was (or might have been) to realize the relationship may not last as long as hoped. This can be an empathy-building exercise as you engage with teens in dating situations or romantic relationships. Empathy can help us better connect and fuel a lasting bond.
Try not to diminish the seriousness of feelings. “You’ll get over this” and “When I was your age…” aren’t the best starters or responses, even if you believe them to be true. Sometimes we aren’t looking for solutions or fixes – we’re looking for someone to value our perspective and consider it important enough to give attention.
Start with “I can tell this is important to you.” Validation is something we all seek – regardless of age. Hearing that someone sees the weight of a problem or issue is sometimes all we need to calm down and get some clarity. Open-ended questions can keep the conversation going, “Tell me more about how this person makes you feel” and “They seem really special to you, I want to hear all about them.” These are also opportunities to reinforce positive characteristics and elements of the relationship (“Wow it seems like they really appreciate how smart you are!”) and identify some dangerous or concerning dynamics (“How do you feel when they text you like that all the time?”). Listening and being present during someone’s pain can be enough – we don’t always need to have the answers or a sage piece of advice.
Please know that if you are concerned that a young person in your life is in an unhealthy and/or unsafe relationship, you don’t have to go it alone and neither do they. Help is out there. The National Dating Abuse Helpline provides 24-hour national web-based and telephone resources. Young people and the people who care about them can call toll free, 1-866-331-9474, text “loveis” to 22522, or log on to the interactive website to receive assistance.