Student Well-Being

Educating Teens About Healthy Relationships: 3 Best Practices

By Caitlynn Peetz — May 12, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of hands holding a broken heart that is being held together by a bandaid
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Abuse in students’ earliest romantic relationships can be devastating—with long-term consequences—but teens often don’t even recognize the when it occurs.

Teen dating violence can lead to higher rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse in adulthood, and a higher likelihood of experiencing violence in adult relationships.

That can seem daunting, but there are lessons schools can implement that can make a big difference, said Megan Shackleton, chief program officer for the One Love Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches youth about healthy relationships and relationship abuse.

Those lessons should focus on helping students recognize the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and educating them about resources that are available if they’re in a troublesome relationship.

As of June 2022, 28 states and the District of Columbia required some level of dating violence prevention education, and nine strongly encouraged it, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.

Whether required or not, Shackleton shared some best practices for districts to consider when broaching the topic of teen dating violence with their students.

1. Start early and adapt as students get older

One study found that nearly half of young people did not recognize signs of abuse, and only about a third of teens who are in an abusive relationship ever tell anyone about the abuse. Some of that resistance can be attributed to stigma around dating violence, or to teens and adolescents simply not knowing how to talk about it or whom to tell, Shackleton said.

Even if they don’t know what to do about it, children and teens are more likely to recognize physical abuse in their relationships than emotional, verbal, or online abuse.

So it’s important that students learn early what unhealthy relationships might look like. That can start in elementary school by outlining what a good, healthy friendship looks like. Then, as students get older, those lessons can evolve to address romantic relationships, Shackleton said.

“The earlier we can give young people the tools to understand and to have the skills to practice this in lower-stakes relationships, the more likely it will be that they’re going to be comfortable and able to do those things when they’re entering more intense, higher-stakes relationships,” Shackleton said.

And consistency is key.

While a single lesson in a students’ academic career can be helpful, reinforcing the signs of abuse at different ages, sharing resources, and creating space for children to talk about their experiences can be transformative, Shackleton said.

“The goal is really to make that language pervasive to give young people a common language to understand what they’re experiencing and seeing all around them, and to be able to speak about and make sense of it,” she said.

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High school couple holding hands from behind and walking down an empty school corridor

2. Use examples kids can relate to

The One Love Foundation’s lessons focus on the 10 signs of a healthy relationship—including independence, healthy conflict, kindness, and respect—and the 10 signs of an unhealthy relationship—such as isolation, possessiveness, and betrayal.

Finding real-world examples of those traits that young people can understand can help the concepts stick, Shackleton said.

And there are endless examples in popular TV shows and movies, she added.

For example, in the first few minutes of “The Notebook,” considered by many to be a classic romance movie, one character hangs from a Ferris wheel threatening to let go if a woman doesn’t go on a date with him.

Often, that kind of gesture is portrayed as romantic, but it’s manipulative and toxic, Shackleton said.

“So much of what kids are experiencing in the media they consume is branded as things they should be striving towards, but they’re actually very unhealthy behaviors and signs of unhealthy passion, which is not what we should be encouraging them to seek in their relationships,” she said. “We’ve glorified it as what it means to be passionate in a relationship.”

3. Make sure resources are readily available year-round

It’s imperative that schools do their part to combat the stigma that might exist around students asking for help when they’re experiencing relationship abuse, Shackleton said.

Schools should post information about local and national hotlines and other resources in high-visibility areas throughout the school, such as bathrooms and common areas, she said.

Teenagers need to know who they can turn to for help. Often, young people first confide in their friends and peers, who are not equipped to handle such a thorny situation. So, making it clear that there are therapists and other adults in the school who are trained and ready to help can go a long way, Shackleton said.

When possible, teachers should also be trained to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships so they can be on the lookout for them and intervene if necessary, she said.

“For example, one of the earliest signs of abuse is a relationship getting really serious really fast, so you might notice a partner waiting outside the classroom for their partner every day, or that they’re not spending as much time with their friends as usual,” Shackleton said. “We do not expect the educator to be the expert on relationship abuse. We want them to start the conversation, and then help direct students to the resources that can help them navigate this relationship safely.”

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