How To Teach Girls What A Healthy Relationship Looks Like, Early On
Love is one of the highest-impact subjects you can teach. Fortunately, it's also one of the easiest to broach.
If you're tempted to open up a discussion of romantic relationships with "no dating until you’re 30!" you wouldn't be alone or entirely misguided. Throughout history, conventional wisdom held that fathers should teach their daughters about the perils of love, stop their potential ravishers at the door, and avenge their heartbreaks.
While your role has evolved, and dad jokes about scaring dates away are far past their prime, there are some real dangers you want to address. Identifying these risks can help your daughter recognize any potentially harmful patterns in her relationships and help her avoid or address them early on:
The risks of romantic relationships:
- Loss of personal identity. Girls can become so wrapped up in their romantic relationships that they get distracted from schoolwork, let their friendships slip, and devote less focus to their own passions.
- Emotional distress. Fights, disappointment, and heartbreak can send girls spiraling.
- Risky sexual behavior. If girls' relationships become intimate, there is the chance for risky sexual behavior to occur. Girls need to be educated about sexual health.
- Dating violence. Dating violence, including sexual misconduct, is a matter of international concern.
The building blocks of healthy relationships.
Some of these building blocks may seem obvious, but you can't take for granted that your daughter will ﬁgure them out easily. Telling her the basics can make a positive difference, saving her time and limiting confusion and heartache. Here are some characteristics of good relationships:
- Partners feel happy and content in the relationship most of the time.
- There are strong feelings of psychological safety and joy and low levels of drama and jealousy.
- Partners feel accepted. They don't feel pressured to change their appearance, values, hobbies, or other personal characteristics.
- Partners maintain their personal identities and activities and stay focused on their individual goals and responsibilities, enjoying their relationship as just one part of their lives.
- Partners share a strong emotional connection, not just a physical connection.
- Partners communicate openly and directly to voice boundaries, build trust, and solve conﬂicts quickly.
- Partners speak and act kindly to each other, boosting each other's self-esteem.
- Partners are not physically violent.
- Partners end relationships respectfully.
Red flags in relationships.
Discussion of potential red ﬂags also has an important place in this conversation. Here are some concerning signs your daughter should be aware of:
- Feeling like a romantic partner is excessively jealous.
- When a romantic partner acts controlling or tries to dictate what their signiﬁcant other is allowed to do, where they can go, and who they can spend time with outside the relationship.
- A partner feels guilty, like they can't do anything right, or that they are "in trouble" with their romantic partner often.
- Any type of physical violence or threat of violence.
- Any type of sexual violence.
Girls' common questions and concerns.
Why it seems like "everyone is in a relationship."
Explain that for a lot of reasons, it might feel to your daughter like she is the only one not in a relationship. It's easy to focus on what others have. A lot of movies depicting life in middle and high school focus on a love story, which makes it seem like having a relationship in your teens is something that needs to happen or should always happen. And romantic relationships are gloriﬁed and depicted in the music girls listen to and the Netﬂix shows they binge. Since our culture places so much value on relationships, it makes total sense she may feel like the only single person at one time or another.
Make sure she knows that most people have their ﬁrst relationships after high school and that relationships don't always happen on our timelines. Relationships are about connecting with the right person at the right time. And make sure she realizes that lots of people have the moment she is having, where they feel like they are the only one without a signiﬁcant other. Her time to be with someone will happen, and it will be worth the wait.
With this approach, you are making her feel heard, honoring her feelings, and reassuring her while also offering her facts to back up a different point of view. She may not be in the mood to consider her situation from a different perspective, but she may come back to it later.
How to get into a relationship.
This is another common question for girls. Mention that relationships begin in all different ways. Help her see the beneﬁt in spending time with people who make her happy and who make her feel relaxed and conﬁdent. Sometimes, girls focus on crushes who don't have the same feelings or who are interested in other people. Encourage your daughter to really pay attention in these moments, noticing whether certain crushes and relationships actually make her happy. Explain that you can't always choose the way you feel or who you are attracted to, but you always have the ability to change your focus to the people you feel comfortable around and who value you.
Things to say:
- I love you.
- Love is an important part of life.
- Healthy relationships can be a fun and meaningful part of life.
- It can feel like everyone else is in a relationship, but that isn't the case.
- Relationships should add to your sense of inner peace and conﬁdence, not cause anxiety.
- You should never feel like you have to change or be uncomfortable to make someone else happy.
- Trust your gut feelings about someone.
- Jealousy, controlling behaviors, and violence are not markers of authentic love.
- Be truthful and kind in relationships.
Things to not say:
- You're not dating until you're 30.
- Relationships don't matter right now; focus on your homework and friendships.
- You're too young to be in love.
- You don't know what love is.
- Relationships never work out.
- All men are dogs.
Questions to ask:
The topic of love and relationships comes up in a song, TV show, or movie. Ask:
- Do you think the way they are talking about love is realistic?
- Do you think the media sets healthy expectations for real-life relationships?
- Do you think the media inﬂuences the way your friends view love and relationships? How?
- Who do you think are the most realistic TV or movie couples? Why?
Your daughter and her friends are talking about crushes and/or signiﬁcant others in your presence. Later on, ask:
- Do you think most people you know in relationships are happy? Or do people get caught up in the drama?
- Do you feel like your friends are always respectful and caring when talking about other people's relationships?
- What do you think are the best things about relationships right now?
- What is most exciting to you about relationships?
Your daughter is in a relationship that seems positive. Ask:
- What is your favorite thing about [name]?
- Are there ways you feel that being in this relationship is helping you?
- What do you feel like you've learned so far about relationships?
- What are the ways you communicate best together?
Beyond the conversation: modeling healthy relational behaviors.
When it comes to teaching your daughter to recognize healthy relationships and incorporate healthy relationship strategies, the example you set is paramount. You don't have to be perfect, but whenever possible, model the habits you hope your daughter will form, even in trying times. Show her what it means to treat loved ones with respect and resolve conﬂicts in caring ways. If you have a romantic partner, be mindful of cultivating healthy relationship dynamics together. Your daughter will notice and develop expectations for her relationships based in great part on your actions and behaviors.
Adapted excerpt published with permission from Talk With Her: A Dad's Essential Guide to Raising Healthy, Confident, and Capable Daughters by Kimberly Wolf, M.Ed.
Kimberly Wolf, M.Ed., is an educator, speaker, and educational consultant with an undergraduate degree in gender studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Fifteen years into her career, through conversations with friends, colleagues, and collaborators who were fathers of daughters, Wolf realized she was in a unique position to demystify girlhood for dads, helping them communicate better with their daughters, maximize their parental impact, and inspire young women to reach their potential. She is the author of Talk With Her: A Dad's Essential Guide to Raising Healthy, Confident, and Capable Daughters.