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5 Ways to Help Kids Build Healthy Relationships

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teen couple with book

Here comes Valentine’s Day, the one day in the year that REALLY calls attention to whether you are “single” or “in a relationship.” Teenagers are pretty much past the valentine card exchange that used to be an indication of how popular you were. Thank goodness most classrooms today insist that any student giving out valentines must give them to every student in the class. That’s a step in the right direction, but what about middle and high school where most of this “relationship status” stuff begins? At that level, we often see candy grams or flowers that kids can order in school before the big day, and have them delivered to their favorite people during the school day. Each class period, students wait with bated breath for the student-delivery-person to show up at the door, wondering if they will be one of the lucky ones to be graced with a lollipop, carnation or rose. Some will float out the door, and others will sink lower and lower as the day goes on and their name is not called. At the college level, it’s all about the bouquets of roses and other beautiful flowers, or the hearts of chocolates, or the jewelry items. All of those items are nice, but I find myself wondering about the feelings and emotions that go along with them, and what you have to do to get that acknowledgement. Here are five tips to help kids find the best relationships they can, not just on Valentine’s Day, but every day of their lives.

Model Self-Respect

Throughout my life, being a kid and working with kids as an educator and therapist, I’ve found myself wondering why people get into bad relationships.. One key commonality of a bad relationship is the fact that most are willing to turn themselves into pretzels to please the other person. I still distinctly remember the “popular” girls from high school that were always in a relationship (although it was the same group of guys that just seemed to rotate from girl to girl). I couldn’t help but notice that most of them seemed miserable when they were in a relationship. Personally, I thought the guys were rude and obnoxious. I couldn’t understand why these girls, who were smart, pretty, outgoing, and so personable, would put up with the way they were treated. What happened to these capable young women when faced with these guys? I remember going to my ten year high school reunion, and the guys who wouldn’t “lower themselves” to speak to me in high school STILL thought they were too good to talk with me 10 years later. That was the last reunion I went to; I have too much self-respect to put up with nonsense like that. And you should be sure to tell your kids that they shouldn’t be a pretzel either.

Show It’s Ok To Go Solo

I’ve also found myself wondering about why people are willing to believe that a bad relationship is better than no relationship. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve encouraged kids (and adults) to let the individuals in their lives who don’t think they are wonderful go. What do they add to your life? Why are you turning yourself into a pretzel to please this person? If someone doesn’t appreciate you for who you are, cut them loose; they aren’t worth it. Sounds like good, reasonable advice. But it’s hard to follow if you don’t believe in yourself and/or have others who believe the same. And, as our kids grow and develop, how many of them are at the point where they have a strong sense of self, love themselves for who they are, and are comfortable in their own skin and being their own best friend? As parents, it’s our job to encourage and enhance our children’s sense of self.

Support Diversity & Inclusion

From the time our kids are little, it’s critical that we (as grown-ups) get it right out of our heads that there is an “in” group and “out” group. If we don’t model and stand up for equality and appreciation of diversity, our kids will suffer. EVERY human being has something valuable to offer. The word “different” means that and only that…”different.” There’s no value hidden in that word unless we put it there. If you see value differences among your friends or the friends of your child, that’s on you…and it will not have a good outcome for either you or your child. I ran the Brownie troop for my daughter’s grade level, and most of the girls lived in the same neighborhood. The moms actually told me to drop one little girl because “she didn’t fit.” I was appalled. These moms, who never offered to help with the Troop, had definite value feelings about who should be in it. I made it very clear to them that this little girl had every right to be in the Brownie Troop; if they didn’t like it, they could either take over the Troop, take their daughter out, or just deal with it. They dealt with it and never crossed me again. EVERYONE has value, and we have to instill that into our kids.

If you see your child leaving one or several children out of activities, call them on it and let them know it’s not ok. Emphasize the value of everyone. Expand their circle of friends and activities to form several groups of friends. It’s great to have school friends, neighborhood friends, church friends, Scout friends, sports friends, activities friends. Expanding the circle honors the differences and it lowers the possibility of having “no friends” if one or more friends withdraws.

Let Your Kids Have a Say

It’s also important for our kids to have a voice. We want to encourage them to express what they are thinking and feeling and, through our listening and hearing, we validate those thoughts and emotions as being ok. This doesn’t mean that the kids run the show; it means that they should have a say in things that relate to their life. Having a say doesn’t equate to having their way. It means that they have the right to express themselves openly and honestly; however, in doing so, they will also learn that others have opinions that may differ from theirs. Learning how to navigate those discussions is an important learning block. As they get older, having the ability to speak their minds is very important. Being able to present an opposing viewpoint, having an opinion, being able to say “no” and mean it…all of that helps form an independent self.

Allow your child to make choices based upon their interests and goals. This isn’t about YOU; it’s about your kid. Don’t try to live vicariously through your child’s activities. Support them, and enjoy their activities for what they can contribute. They don’t have to be the star. If they are having fun, that’s all that matters. I remember watching a parent at their kid’s soccer game. This parent just rode the living daylights out of the kid, screaming and yelling corrections all throughout the game. Finally, as the child ran by, he looked at his parent and screamed, “Shut Up!” I have to admit…I kind of loved it. And I totally understood that kid at that moment. Remember what Thumper told Bambi…”if you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

The same is true of choices regarding goals. This may be course choices, post-secondary options, and career options. I’ve sat through far too many meetings with parents who choose for their children and then, a few months later when the child isn’t doing well, the parent wants to know what to do about it. My son asked me if I’d rather he was an art teacher or a comedian. I looked at him and said, “I don’t care what you decide to do as long as you are happy and able to support yourself.” The latter part of that sentence got him thinking. Let your kid be him/herself.

Encourage Them To Be Their Own Person

As your kids get older, pay attention to the relationships they have with boyfriends AND girlfriends. Do they seem happy? When in a relationship, are they changing interests, attitudes, styles, behaviors? Do those changes seem related to the people with whom they are in a relationship? When people begin to change to please another, that’s a bad sign. It’s a sign of control, and control issues can lead to no good. We want to encourage, and witness, our children being their own person.

Healthy relationships require open and honest communication, a balance of power, mutual respect, and the understanding that each individual is a valuable and capable person. It’s not about just having a relationship, even if conditions aren’t the best. The foundation is having a solid, loving relationship with yourself, first. If you don’t love or like yourself, no one else can fill that void. So let’s encourage and validate our kids to be themselves first and foremost. Let’s guide, model, and cheer them on to be their very best selves for Number One. The rest will fall into place.

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