How do children learn to develop healthy relationships?

All children can learn the skills they need to create safe and supportive relationships. Healthy relationships are the cornerstone of emotional wellbeing. Children who learn to identify the qualities of a healthy relationship at an early age tend to be happier as they get older.

Adults often don’t associate complex emotions with children, but this is a harmful oversight. From dealing with bullying, to self-regulating their emotions, and embarking on their first romantic relationships, children often come into contact with emotions that are challenging for them to handle. All children can and should learn the skills they need to create safe and supportive relationships.

What is a healthy relationship?

Identify Healthy Relationships

Is your child in a healthy relationship?

Healthy Relationship Quizzes

Why is talking with your child about healthy relationships important?

They deserve safety

Your child deserves to feel secure, supported, respected, and cared for in all of their relationships. If they know how to recognize healthy relationships, they can make informed choices about their own relationships.

You can intercept negative messages

We are all constantly receiving messages about relationships from the world around us. Controlling behavior, name-calling, extreme jealousy, and even physical violence are often portrayed as expected parts of romantic relationships. Challenge ideas like “boys will be boys” that suggest your child’s gender determines their role in a relationship or confuses crossing boundaries with signs of affection. Show your child that power and control are unhealthy. 

Practice makes perfect

Learning to treat others in healthy and respectful ways takes practice. You can give your child the skills and space to practice setting and respecting boundaries, reflect on their mistakes, and treat others with kindness. Help them practice by teaching them to say things like “Do you want to keep playing this game?” and “I don’t like it when you do that. Please stop now.”

Encourage your child to ask questions about the relationships they see around them.

What can I say or do?

Make sure you let your child know that they have the right to set boundaries with their friends and family members.  Remind them they have the right to be respected in their friendships, and encourage them to come to you if something is bothering them.

Ask about their feelings and relationships

Lead by example. Talk about your feelings with them so they know it’s normal. Encourage them to share their excitement or concern about any of their relationships with you. Try to respond without judgment. Your child should know that they can always come to you if they have questions or find themselves in an unhealthy relationship.

Pause to check in

Whether you are in the middle of having a tickle fight or cuddling with a book, take the time to pause and ask if your child is enjoying themself and wants to continue. This shows that it’s okay to stop an activity to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.

Practice empathy

Encourage your child to think about how their actions might affect other people. Prompt your child to read the facial expressions and body language of people around them or of characters in books, TV shows, and movies. Say, “Based on their face, how do you think they’re feeling?” If your child has hurt someone, say, ‘It seems like your friend was hurt by what you did. Please check in to see if they are okay and ask how you can make them feel better.”

Empower them to make choices about their body

We often tell children to hug or kiss family members or other adults in their lives as a sign of love and respect–even when they don’t want to. This can send the message that other people’s feelings are more important than their right to make decisions about their own body. If you notice your child is shy or nervous in these situations, offer them choices: “Do you want to wave or hug goodbye?”

Speak without shame about body parts and functions

When children are taught to feel ashamed about touching or talking about their bodies, they are less likely to speak up about abuse. Encourage your child to ask questions and learn about their body.

Show them you mean it!

Your child pays close attention to what you do and learns lessons from how you interact with them and others. Be honest when you make a mistake. Show them you are practicing too.

Where can I get more information or help?

Day One provides workshops to build healthy relationship skills for students from kindergarten through college. You can invite us to your school to learn more. We also provide free legal and social services to survivors of intimate partner violence aged 24 and under. Call us at 800.214.4150 or text us at 646.535.DAY1 (3291) if you or someone you know needs support.

Hidden Water (NYC) provides healing circles for individuals and families affected by child sexual abuse. Call 929.383.0062 for more information.

STEPS to End Family Violence (NYC) offers free, trauma-informed therapy to children aged 0-12 who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence through their Children’s Therapy Program. Call them at 877.783.7794 for more information.

Future of Sex Education created the National Sexuality Education Standards and advocates for comprehensive sexuality education in public schools that includes ongoing conversations about healthy relationships, consent, gender, and sexuality.

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