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 and don’t feel pressured to do things that make them feel uncomfortable – for example, they can choose what activities they want to do, and who they want to do these activities with.
  • 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 only intimate and touch each other when they both want to – for example, they agree that they’ll have sex only when they’re both ready
  • know it’s OK to say ‘no’ – for example, they can say, ‘No, I don’t want to drink any alcohol’
  • communicate openly and sort out conflicts fairly – for example, if they disagree about how much time to spend with each other, they look at their commitments together and come up with a solution that works for both of them.
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 him 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?

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 she needs help with a relationship.

Other ways to encourage respectful relationships

Here are some 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 praise for respectful behaviour – for example, ‘It’s great how you stayed calm and walked away when you were feeling really angry. You took responsibility and didn’t take your anger out on someone else. Well done!’
  • Manage your own anger and teach your child how to manage his 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 really 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 herself. You could do this by saying no to others – for example, ‘I can’t help out tomorrow. I’ve got a report to finish’.

Disrespectful relationships: what are they?

A disrespectful relationship is one in which people don’t feel valued. 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 he might misinterpret signs. For example, he 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 off small and can grow over time and turn into abuse. For example, something can start as minor jealousy about spending time with others. Teenagers might even misinterpret this as romantic. But this kind of jealousy can result in people becoming isolated from friends and family as relationships progress.

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 have got 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 prevent the person 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 demanding to know where the person is, or spying when the other person is out with friends.
If your child experiences abuse, it’s not your child’s fault. If your child is in a disrespectful relationship, it’s also not your fault as a parent. It hasn’t happened because of how you parented your child.

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 or anxiety
  • low self-confidence or self-worth – for example, your child might say things like ‘I’m completely useless’ or she might give in to her 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 his room
  • problems with alcohol or other drugs.

Your child is in a disrespectful relationship: what to do

If your child is in a disrespectful relationship or you think she is, she needs your support.

You can start by talking with your child, but this might be a difficult conversation.

You can encourage your child to express his feelings about the relationship by asking questions like these:

  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your boyfriend/girlfriend?
  • How do you feel about that behaviour?
  • What do your friends say about your boyfriend/girlfriend and the way he/she treats you?
  • Is there anything about the relationship that makes you feel uncomfortable?

You can also talk with your child about her 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?

You can also 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 his 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 your child
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 – Teens 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.

1800 Respect is a 24-hour national sexual assault and domestic violence counselling helpline.

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.