How to Talk with Kids about Healthy Relationships

Robin Pittman, MS, CHES – Senior Health Educator

Healthy relationships are something all parents want for their children.  In pre-school, we teach them how to be a good friend and how to play well with others.  In the elementary grades, we teach them about bullies.  In the middle school years, puberty and “the talk” about sex often becomes the priority – so much so that the conversation of healthy romantic relationships tends to get delayed or neglected altogether.

While it is very important to have the discussion about sex, parents should also have “the talk” about love in order to protect children from unhealthy relationships.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in ten high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped, or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.  By teaching children the key elements to healthy relationships, teens and young adults are more likely to have healthy long-lasting relationships.

According to a report from Making Caring Common, “large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. Yet it appears that parents, educators and other adults often provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships.” Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd conducted a survey and found that 70% of the 18-25 year old participants wanted information from their parents about the emotional aspects of romantic relationships, and 65% said they wanted to learn about the emotional aspects of relationships in their sexuality education classes in school. In other words, while most parents, schools, and educators are discussing abstinence, how to avoid pregnancy, and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, kids want more. Children want to know about how to love and be loved. You cannot talk about one without the other.

Here are some key points to start the conversation with your child.  Keep in mind the best time to start these conversations is BEFORE your child is in a romantic relationship.  

Hands making a heart shape.1. Define, model, and give examples of what a healthy relationship is. There are several ways to discuss this, but emphasizing that all good relationships must have trust, honesty, respect, communication, and understanding is a good way to start. A healthy relationship will allow both partners to have other friends, develop personal interests, and remain individuals while being a couple. Defining each of these elements and showing them examples of what they look like is important.

2. Explain what an unhealthy relationship is. There are many factors that make a relationship unhealthy or abusive.  According to, an unhealthy relationship is defined as “an imbalance in which one partner tries to exercise control and power over the other through threats, emotional abuse, and physical abuse. At its most extreme, an unhealthy relationship can include name-calling and insults, withholding of money or other resources, threats to isolate a person from friends and family, coercion, violent acts, stalking and significant physical injury.”

3. Discuss digital abuse. Technology is such a big part of teenagers’ lives these days. Constant and instant communication via social media and texting opens the door widely to many unhealthy behaviors, including digital abuse.  Digital abuse occurs when a person uses technology, such as smartphones and computers, to harass another person usually through texting or social media.  Digital abuse can include:

  • Constant unwanted calls or texts
  • Harassment/cyberbullying on social media
  • Sexting – Pressure to send nude or private pictures or content
  • Using social media, texts, calls to monitor whereabouts, send insults, or control other relationships 
  • Pressuring their partner for their passwords to social media sites and email

4. Help them define boundaries. Personal boundaries are something every teen needs to establish. Boundaries protect against sexual and physical abuse in a relationship.  They also let each person in the relationship understand the other’s values and what is okay and not okay. Work with your child to identify and articulate their personal values and boundaries. Revisit family values and how that translates to romantic relationships. While it is important for adolescents to understand their own boundaries, it is also important to understand that their partner has boundaries that need to be respected.

5. Look for signs of an unhealthy relationship and talk. Unhealthy relationships are all about lack of mutual respect, failing to respect a partner’s boundaries, and an inequity of power and control. If you feel like your child is spending a lot of time with his/her partner and not as much time with family, other friends, or hobbies, then that’s a warning sign. If you notice any of these red flags, it is time to talk with your teen. Offer strategies to get out of the relationship quickly and safely.

6. Ask for help when needed. This applies to your teen – and you.  If your teen is struggling with a relationship, encourage him/her to seek help from you, a trusted adult, or local resource. Additionally, if you need some support to start a conversation about healthy relationships with your child or you are worried they are in an abusive relationship, seek help. There are plenty of resources and people who can help.

  • Love Is Respect ( is an organization that gives support and information for teens and their parents or friends who have concerns about dating relationships. To get in touch with a trained peer advocate, call 1-866-331-9474, text “loveis” to 22522, or  chat online at
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Teaching adolescents what it means to be in a healthy relationship is a very important message and needs to be talked about.  Discussing these issues and explaining the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship can help them understand what it means to have positive relationships and could possibly even save their lives.  


Featured Program: Healthy Relationships 101

The Poe Center offers a healthy relationships class for 8th graders-12th graders. Healthy Relationships 101 explores the facets of what makes a healthy relationship.  Setting and communicating personal boundaries, identifying warning signs of unhealthy relationships, and identifying societal influences that impact relationships are discussed through engaging activities, multimedia, and thoughtful reflection.

To find out more information about this class or to schedule, call 919-231-4006.  

Two people holding hands.

Schedule a program with us today.


For the Classroom: Crossing the Line

Grades: Ideal for 8th-12th graders

Objectives: To highlight the importance of establishing boundaries within a romantic relationship.

Materials Needed:

  • Painters or masking tape
  • Situational prompts
  • Large space
  • Use as many volunteers as space will provide (the whole class would be ideal.)


  • Place a long straight line of tape on the floor.
  • Have all participants stand on the line that you have placed on the floor.
  • Once everyone has taken his/her place on the line, read the first prompt.
  • If a person is comfortable with the situation on the prompt he/she will take a step forward from the line. If uncomfortable, he/she will take a step behind the line. It is not an option to remain on the line during any of the prompts.
  • Once everyone has stepped forward or backward from the line, ask participants to explain their reasons for taking the steps they did.
  • Repeat this process with other prompts.

Outcomes: Students will discuss how different scenarios and situations would make them feel within their own romantic relationships. Students will see the importance of establishing physical and emotional boundaries in their relationships.

Crossing the Line Prompts: When doing this activity, to keep within time allotment – pick 4-6 of these scenarios. 
Sometimes we assume that everyone else thinks the same way we do, or that we should feel the same way as others.  Most of the time two people won’t see everything exactly the same way.  It’s important for us to communicate how we feel about our boundaries in a relationship.

“Within your own romantic relationship, how comfortable would you be if you partner did the following:”

  • Pats you on the butt
  • Holds your hand
  • Gives you an extended hug
  • Texts explicit messages
  • Texts explicit picture messages
  • Texts or calls you every hour
  • Expects to know who you are with at all times
  • Kisses you on the cheek
  • Kisses you on the lips
  • Massages your shoulders
  • French kisses you
  • Puts their arm around your shoulder
  • Heavy petting / touching genitals
  • Touches breasts
  • Grabs you by the arm
  • Tickles you
  • Plays with your hair