Respectful relationships for teenagers: what do they look like?
Respect is about treating ourselves and others with dignity and consideration. Respect is an essential part of romantic, intimate and sexual relationships for teenagers.
Teenagers in respectful romantic relationships:
- can make their own choices – for example, they can choose what activities they want to do, who they’re friends with and how they spend their time, together and apart
- treat each other equally and fairly – for example, if they belong to different religions, it’s OK for them to follow their own beliefs
- see mistakes as normal and OK – for example, if they forget to phone each other, they say, ‘It’s easy to forget – next time it might be me who forgets’
- are intimate and touch each other only when they both want to – for example, they agree that they’ll touch or have sex only when they’re both ready
- don’t feel pressure to do things that make them uncomfortable – for example, they can say ‘No, I don’t want to go to that party’ or ‘No, I don’t want to drink alcohol’
- communicate openly and sort out conflicts fairly – for example, if they disagree about how much time to spend with each other, they work out a solution that suits them both.
Respectful relationships allow teenagers to feel valued and accepted for who they are. These relationships are a vital part of healthy social, sexual and emotional development for teenagers.
Talking about respectful relationships
You can help your child to choose and build respectful relationships by talking with them about how people behave in respectful romantic and intimate relationships.
You could try asking open questions to get the conversation started. For example:
- What do you think is important in a relationship?
- How do you want to be treated?
- What kind of behaviour shows you that someone truly loves or cares for you?
- How do you show others you love and care for them?
If your child has questions, try to answer them honestly and openly. If you can have conversations like this with your child, it encourages clear, open and honest communication. It also makes it easier for your child to come to you in the future if they need help working out whether a relationship is respectful.
Other ways to encourage respectful relationships
Here are other ways that you can promote caring and respectful relationships:
- Be a role model for respectful and caring behaviour in your own relationships. And if you find yourself in a disrespectful relationship, model positive ways to manage that – for example, by being assertive, talking with the person involved or seeking professional help.
- Use active listening to understand your child’s and other people’s perspectives.
- Give your child descriptive praise for respectful behaviour. For example, ‘It was nice to hear you talking together about how to fit in time with your friends as well as each other’.
- Manage your own anger and help your child learn how to manage strong emotions like anger. For example, if you need to calm down when you’re feeling angry, tell yourself to stop, breathe and relax.
- Show your child how to put conflict management strategies into action. For example, you could say something like ‘I feel upset and worried when you don’t come home at the time we agreed on. Can we talk about that?’ This shows your child how to use ‘I’ statements and be specific.
- Stand up for yourself and your own needs in a respectful way and teach your child to stand up for themselves. You could do this by saying no to others. For example, ‘I can’t help tomorrow. I’ve got a report to finish’.
Spending time with your child and their partner helps you to know whether your child’s relationship is a respectful one. You could do this by inviting your child’s partner to join you for family meals or family outings every now and then.
Disrespectful relationships: what are they?
A disrespectful relationship is one in which people don’t feel valued and equal. It might be a relationship where one person is treated unfairly or even experiences abuse.
Your child might not realise a relationship is disrespectful to start with, or they might misinterpret signs. For example, your child might see jealousy or constant text messaging as a sign of love, rather than as a warning sign of abuse.
Disrespectful behaviour can also start small and grow into abuse over time. For example, your child’s partner might check on where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing. Your child might misinterpret this as romantic. But this kind of behaviour can become controlling and isolate your child from friends and family as the relationship progresses.
In a disrespectful relationship one person might:
- try to control the other person – for example, by stopping the other person from seeing family and friends, or controlling where the person goes and who the person sees
- blame and humiliate the other person – for example, by saying things like ‘If you hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t be angry’ or ‘This is all your fault! I can’t believe I put up with you!’
- use emotional blackmail – for example, by saying things like ‘If you don’t come straight to my house after school, I’m going to tell everyone what a loser you are’ or ‘If you leave me, I’m going to kill myself’
- verbally abuse the other person – for example, by shouting or using put-downs like ‘No-one will ever like you’ or ‘You’re useless’
- physically abuse the other person – for example, by shaking the person during an argument, or holding the person’s wrist to stop them from moving away
- sexually abuse or sexually assault the other person – this is any unwanted and forced sexual contact, including forced kissing, touching and vaginal, oral or anal penetration
- follow or harass the other person or use cyberbullying – for example, by repeatedly texting to find out where the person is or using social media to track the other person’s location
- frequently break arrangements, not turn up or lie to the other person.
Disrespect and abuse are never OK. There are no excuses for this kind of behaviour. It’s never justified by feelings, family circumstances, background, past experiences, or use of alcohol and other drugs.
Effects of disrespectful relationships
Being in a disrespectful relationship can affect your child’s health and wellbeing.
Common effects include:
- changes in sleep and eating habits – for example, your child might have nightmares, trouble sleeping or a sudden loss of or increase in appetite
- feelings of depression, anxiety, sadness or hopelessness
- low self-confidence or self-worth – for example, your child might say things like ‘I’m completely useless’ or they might give in to their partner to prevent conflict
- isolation from family and friends – for example, your child might not want to join in with social activities or might spend a lot of time alone in their room
- problems with alcohol or other drugs.
When teenagers are in disrespectful relationships: what to do
If your child is in a disrespectful relationship or you think they are, your child needs your support.
You can start by talking with your child, but this might be a difficult conversation. It might be hard for your child to hear that their relationship is unhealthy. It can help to take the conversation gently and focus on your child’s feelings.
You can encourage your child to express their feelings about the relationship by asking questions like these:
- ‘How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your partner?’
- ‘How did you feel … ?’ For example, ‘How did you feel when Sam told you not to go to the sleepover on Saturday night?’
- ‘What do your friends say about your partner and the way they treat you?’
- ‘Is there anything about the relationship that makes you feel uncomfortable?’
You can also talk with your child about their options and what might happen. For example:
- ‘What are the pros and cons of staying together?’
- ‘What might happen if you stay together?’
- ‘What might happen if you break up?’
And you can ask your child how you can help. Our article on problem-solving can give you some strategies for working through situations like this.
Your child might not want to talk with you about their relationship. In this situation, it might help if another trusted adult can talk to your child – for example, an aunt or uncle, grandparent or family friend.
Getting help for teenagers in disrespectful relationships
You can help your child get professional support from a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor or GP. Your child can also talk with a school counsellor. These professionals can help you and your child find other relevant services in your area.
Kids Helpline is a free and confidential 24-hour counselling service for young people. Your child can talk to someone on the phone by calling 1800 551 800. Your child can also get counselling by email or online.
You or your child can also call the National Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)
There are also other options if you need them. For example, you or your child might need to think about making a report to the police.
It’s never too late to get help.