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Helping Kids Learn About Healthy Relationships

By Dr. Brad Schwall

Pre-schools and elementary schools are still carrying on the traditions of Valentine's Day similar to the shoe box Valentine's Day "mailboxes" with construction paper and doily hearts of past years. Though Valentine's Day has a long and quite interesting development and history, (i.e. quite interesting origins in the Roman Empire) distant from the cookies, cupcakes, and class parties, the fact that there are even class parties celebrating the day in school reflects the fact that we address friendships and affection at an early age. Current events highlight issues related to boundaries, power, respect, and relationships. Whether your children are experiencing "puppy love," considering themselves "dating" (pre-teens who seem to equate texting with "dating"), or developing a closer relationship in later adolescence, how can we encourage our children to have a healthy perspective on relationships?

Children develop their understanding of relationships, friendships, and care and affection as they mature. At each stage of development, parents can normalize curiosity and questions about sexuality, avoid shaming children with teasing or sarcasm, and support a respectful and age-appropriate perspective on relationships.

Be In Tune with Your Child

Understand that children's views of relationships, friendships, love, and sexuality begin early on in child development. As children share and ask questions, listen, give attention, and offer age-appropriate responses. Your openness and responsiveness will encourage communication.

Offer a Balanced and Age-appropriate Perspective

To nurture a balanced, age-appropriate perspective on relationships:

  • Focus on friendship - emphasize to your children that all of their peers are their friends
  • When pre-teens begin discussing "dating," de-mystify "romantic" relationships by emphasizing that it is great to have friendships while guiding your pre-teen to keep things in perspective
  • Focus on age-appropriate activities for pre-teens
  • Affirm your children for developing healthy friendships and being respectful of everyone 
  • Teach your children to speak respectfully about and to the opposite sex
  • Discuss boundaries helping children, pre-teens, and teens understand how to respect the physical and emotional boundaries of others while establishing and asserting their own boundaries

Be an Example

Children learn the most about relationships from the example of the parents, caregivers, and adults around them. Choose your words and actions wisely and you will help your child have healthy relationships into adulthood.