The Conversation Guide
The key to teaching boys about healthy and unhealthy relationships is by having many small talks over time.
We know this can sound hard and like a lot of work, or you may just not know where to start.
That's why our expert youth educators are sharing their 5 best strategies here. These strategies can help you teach and model healthy relationships to boys.
We hope you enjoy reading through them and give them a shot!
Make your opinion known
This is less of a “conversation” and more of an invitation. When you are with your child while watching a movie or discussing a recent event in the news, your comments can influence your boy’s point of view — and it is important that they know where you stand.
Why is this important: When we shy away from talking about teen dating violence and sexual assault, our kids may learn that the right response to these topics is silence. Or worse, when their only exposure to the topic is from social media, movies and shows that depict relationship abuse as normal or funny, our children may learn that abuse in relationships is expected and okay. If there is a high profile sexual assault case in the news, and a parent makes light or casual comments—even as a joke—child may learn that they should make those comments too. This promotes a culture at home and at school that doesn’t take sexual assault or relationship abuse seriously.
How this prevents relationship abuse: Making your opinion known is a way of telling your child what you think. Our children learn from what we say even when it’s not directed at them. If your child looks up to you, they are likely to adopt your view. For this reason, it’s crucial that we are mindful of or intentional with the comments we make around our kids. Letting your kids know that sexual assault and relationship abuse are not okay and that there is help if that happens is a step in the right direction. When done often enough, we start contributing to a culture of respect and non-violence.
What can parents do: Here are some things you can do as a parent to make your opinion known.
1. Say when something is not okay.
When you see controlling behaviors on TV or in social media, say “that’s not okay” or “yikes, that was controlling”. By making even the smallest judgment on relationship abuse, you indicate to your boy that that behavior is not acceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated in their own relationships.
2. Label the behaviors.
When you see controlling behaviors on TV or in social media, describe it as relationship abuse. By correctly labeling behaviors, you teach your boy the tools to recognize that behavior in their own relationships.
3. Give random reminders.
Whether you are driving your boy home from school or walking around a grocery store, you can always drop some reminders and see what sticks. Say “remember that it's never okay to be hit in a relationship” or “remember that when someone says no to something, you should stop”. Although it's out of the blue, when done often enough you may be surprised by how much your boy remembers.
4. Describe the emotional impact of relationship abuse.
When you see relationship abuse on screen, describe how it can make the victim feel. You might say “dang, they were probably very hurt by that” or “they probably were very scared when they did that.” Explaining that abuse has harmful consequences trains your boy to empathize and this will help them be more responsive to their actions and the actions of others in future relationships.
Build trust through sharing and acceptance
Boys talk with people they trust. You can build trust with your son by telling them about yourself and accepting who they share themselves to be. When your son trusts you, they are more likely to ask for and respect your advice.
Why is this important: When boys are young, they see their parents as perfect people and usually want to be like them. As they enter their pre-teens, they may become disillusioned with the fact that their parents are human, imperfect, and capable of mistakes. This realization can cause a rift and decrease the trust the boy has with their parents. There is a lot that a parent can do to sustain trust during this time. When parents earn the trust of their boy, they are included in their support network.
How this prevents relationship abuse: When boys trust their parents to be supportive and accepting, they are more likely to go to them for advice before, during or after abuse begins in a relationship. In the event that your boy is in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat them well, a trusted parent is more likely to have this shared with them early and be able to respond.
What can parents do: Here are some things you can do as a parent to build trust with your sons:
1. Own your imperfections.
When we take the time to point out our imperfections, we are giving them permission to be imperfect too. This positive role-modeling helps guide your boy away from any perfectionist expectations and role-models humility. It’s common for boys to develop unhealthy ideas about what they think their parents want them to be or do. Talking about imperfections and expectations with pre-teen boys builds trust because it makes you more approachable and creates opportunities to deconstruct any unhealthy expectations your boys may have.
2. Apologize for your mistakes and outbursts.
Boys need nonjudgmental spaces to share their thoughts and feelings. If a boy feels their parents are not receptive to their emotions, they will not share them or they will only share their anger. Sometimes we get angry and upset and we say things we don’t mean. Apologizing is the way to show your boys that you are aware of your behavior and that it was not okay. This builds trust because your boys will become confident in your ability to emotionally regulate. Moreover, boys who see their parents apologize soon learn to apologize and emotionally regulate themselves.
3. Create opportunities for autonomy and responsibility.
Children need opportunities to learn to make their own choices. When you grant them these opportunities, you help them build a sense of control and responsibility over their own lives. This builds trust because your child will see you as someone who empowers them to be their best self. Pre-teens are on the cusp of starting their journey to adulthood.
4. Be supportive of their identities and expressions.
We’re fast approaching a world that is inclusive and accepting of human diversity. However, the amount of discrimination and violence toward LGBTQIA+ identities today still leads children to assume they aren’t accepted. What isn’t said is sometimes as important as what is said and without clear messages, children will make assumptions. It is extremely powerful and necessary to tell your child that you will love them, no matter who they choose to love.
Create a space for conversation
Conversations happen best when the time and place makes it easier to have one. A lot of things go into making a space inviting for conversation. These things can include removing distractions, having a reason to talk and even knowing when it’s not a good time to talk.
Why is this important: Children listen and learn best when they are engaged and want to talk. Pulling your child's attention away from something else they want to do isn’t effective and will more likely create feelings of frustration and disrespect. For this reason, it’s crucial that you find a time that works for both of you and that your child wants to listen.
How this prevents relationship abuse: Creating spaces for meaningful conversation can prevent abuse in two key ways. First, it offers opportunities for you to share your guidance on healthy relationships with your child. Your child is more likely to learn and remember what you say when you dedicate time to deep conversations. Second, it more easily allows your child to let you know when something is bothering them, such as an unhealthy relationship. This is because having a regular time and space to talk makes you more accessible.
What can parents do: Here are some things you can do to create spaces for intentional conversation.
1. Create a ritual.
Whether it’s getting ice-cream every weekend or picking up a smoothie on the way home from school on Fridays, building a routine creates a regular situation where you’ll be near your child in a setting where it’s easy to talk. A ritual is beautiful because it builds an expectation for your child that they can look forward to connecting with you.
2. Find a common interest.
A great way to make a space meaningful for a child is to have a shared activity. The activity allows you both to occupy your hands and eyes, which can make it easier for your child to fidget and stay engaged. Some examples include hiking, playing video games, getting a smoothie or making food together. You can also bike to a park and sit and talk while you catch your breath or kick a soccer ball back and forth.
3. Agree on a time together.
Choose a time to hangout that works for the both of you. Meal times may sound convenient, but they aren’t always the best. If they’d rather read, talk with their siblings or are too distracted while they eat, then it might not be the best time. Asking them if they’d like to talk about something allows them to agree and give them the opportunity to hold themselves accountable to their choice. This can sound like “Hey, I have a couple interesting stories I’d like to share with you. Is now a good time, or would you prefer later?” It’s important for your child to want to talk and giving them the option will make all the difference.
Perhaps there is a topic you are interested in talking about or you just shared an experience with your child and want to know what they think. Asking inviting questions can give you a glimpse into what ideas they’ve picked up from their friends, their school and the media they consume. In turn, what they disclose can help you get an idea of what you should talk about and role model.
Why is this important: Your child may believe a topic is important, but not want to talk about it because they are waiting for you to initiate. As parents, the topics we discuss in the home often set the tone for the types of conversations that your child comes to believe are allowed in the home. When we treat relationship abuse and sexual assault as taboo topics, we create an atmosphere of silence that leads our children to believe they shouldn’t talk about it either.
How this prevents relationship abuse: When you break the silence about sexual assault and relationship abuse in the home, it tells your child that the home is a safe place for them. They will feel more comfortable coming to you when they have questions about relationships, intimacy and even red flags.
What can parents do: Here are some things you can do to ask questions:
1. Ask your child inviting questions.
There’s a difference between closed questions and open questions, interrogating questions and inviting questions. Close questions can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ while open questions allow your child to guide the conversation.
2. Observe clues your child wants to talk.
Are you wondering when to ask an inviting question? Sometimes our children want us to ask questions and this request comes out in their behavior and body language.
3. Practice active listening.
Active listening is a tried and true way to show empathy and allow others to feel validated. But it’s also a skill and needs practice. The good news is that you can practice it with anybody!
Demonstrate your knowledge
It’s great when you are trusted by your child and have a relationship with them, but now it’s time to put that relationship to work by sharing your experience and knowledge to prepare them for a world of relationships with friends, family, co-workers and romantic partners.
Why is this important: Children today receive little to no formal education on healthy or unhealthy relationships. It’s normal to only receive only one assembly on healthy relationships throughout middle and high school or to have one lesson in sex-ed during freshman year of high school. And they receive even less information on how to get help or support a friend who is experiencing relationship abuse. As a parent, you have years of time to share your wisdom with your child. Make the most of it!
How this prevents relationship abuse: Relationship abuse often happens when one person tries to control their partner. Abusive partners often believe their efforts to control are justified because of their insecurity, gender roles, or because of their past trauma. The victim is often very understanding, made to feel guilty, afraid or responsible, or feels pressure to forgive the abuse. Teaching about healthy relationship expectations helps children build the instinct to tell when a partner is being controlling and step away before they feel trapped and need the support of others to leave. Talking to your child about who to talk to and why it’s hard to leave an abusive relationship will empower your child to do what is best for them when things don’t feel right. We won’t always be there to protect them, so giving them the tools to understand abuse and a plan to be safe is sometimes the best we can do.
What can parents do: Here are some ways you can demonstrate your understanding of relationships:
1. Share your understanding of healthy relationships.
If you can provide your child with sensible and useful information on healthy and unhealthy relationships, they are more likely to come back to you for more. Take some time to learn the basics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, the relationship spectrum and the warning signs of abusive relationships.
2. Share your understanding of gender expectations.
Gender stereotypes that we receive from the media, friends and family can play a powerful role in shaping our relationship expectations. These expectations can be so strong that they can lead to acceptance of abuse or encourage violence toward a partner. We call this gender-based violence.
3. Coach your child on how to support others.
When you are able to coach your child on how to support a friend, they will assume you are also capable of supporting them. This will in turn lead them to see you as someone to go to if they need help in a relationship.
4. Share the challenges that survivors of abuse face.
It’s one thing to know the basics of healthy and abusive relationships and how to support a friend. But if you also know the psychological obstacles to getting help, your child will tell everyone that you are an expert in the subject!