6 Ways to Help Youth Build Healthy Relationships with Peers and Partners

“We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way.” 

Taylor Swift got it right in this song, 22, from her fourth studio album, Red. And she keeps getting it right over and over. ‘It’ being the misery and magic of youth dating relationships and friendships of course. (See what we did there?). Swift’s discography is a therapist’s gold mine for how to connect with tweens, adolescents, and college-age youth navigating the ups and downs of relationships. Professionals who work in youth-serving organizations can make a significant impact on their client’s social and emotional development by offering thoughtful guidance on how to build and keep healthy relationships, both with their friends and their significant others. Taylor Swift can help you understand what resonates with Gen Z and Gen Alpha in terms of relationships, but we’ll take it a step further in this article by sharing practical tips to help you help youth build and maintain healthy relationships with their peers and their partners. We’ll cover: 

  • 3 quick tips to guide youth in developing strong friendships and preventing bullying in their communities 
  • 3 straight-forward ways to support adolescents and young adults through dating relationships
  • 1 solution for professionals to screen for risks associated with youth relationships, including bullying and intimate partner violence 
Two adolescent girls sitting on a log on a nature walk, looking happy. Friendship.

3 Tips to Help Youth Build Healthy Friendships

1. Teach Youth How to Communicate (In-Person)

Text messages and social media apps are the norm for many youth. (It’s the norm for many of us!) Posting, commenting, and scrolling YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, which are the 4 most popular social media apps for U.S. teens, is at least as common if not much more common than in-person conversations with real life friends. Yet, the ability to communicate well with others is at the heart of lasting friendships. 

In your work with youth, encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings honestly with their friends. Provide clear, step-by-step instructions for active listening, including how to make eye contact, nod, and reflect back what they’ve heard. Modeling and role playing will be helpful here! Have the youth practice a simple back-and-forth exchange where they are looking at the ground or off in another direction, and that same exchange a second time where they are making eye contact (or another skill like nodding, open posture, or reflective listening). We aren’t trying to teach youth how to be therapists with these skills, but simply providing guidance on how to communicate effectively. This will help them show their peers that they value their perspective and want to hear what they have to say. 

2. Encourage Extracurriculars and Shared Interests, Activities

We’re getting back to the basics with this one, but there’s good reason for it. Shared interests, hobbies, and activities will strengthen friendships. Help youth discover and engage in activities they enjoy together, whether it’s sports, music, art, gaming, service, or something else. Try to help them move beyond technology and social media and identify hands-on activities that encourage some amount of socialization with others.

Participating in shared interests will deepen the connections they have with their friends and create positive experiences that they can bond over. Plus, youth are likely to make new friends in these activities! Research suggests that adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely to have higher peer acceptance and positive social interactions.

3. Educate About Bullying

Bullying can severely impact a youth’s ability to form healthy relationships, regardless of whether the youth is the victim of bullying or is bullying others. In your work with youth, keep the signs of bullying top of mind, and educate your client on them as well. 

Signs that a youth may be a victim of bullying: 

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide

Signs that a youth may be bullying others: 

  • Get into physical or verbal fights
  • Have friends who bully others
  • Are increasingly aggressive
  • Get sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently
  • Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • Blame others for their problems
  • Don’t accept responsibility for their actions
  • Are competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity

Source: https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying/warning-signs 

Teach youth how to intervene safely and support peers who might be experiencing bullying, including when to get help from an adult and the importance of encouraging a culture of inclusivity and respect within their social circles. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), about 20% of students aged 12-18 experience bullying nationwide. That’s 1 in 5 kids…. Bullying is a prevalent issue among youth and we must address it proactively. 

3 Ways to Support Teens and Young Adult Dating Relationships

1. Teach the Foundations of Respect and Consent

Respect and consent are fundamental to any healthy romantic relationship at any age. No matter how basic it may seem, youth-serving professionals must discuss the importance of mutual respect in all interactions. Teach and reinforce the message that consent is an ongoing conversation and must be given freely. The discussion should involve conversation about how to talk about boundaries, what it actually means to respect a person’s boundaries, and an acknowledgement that consent can be revoked at any time. A study by the CDC found that 1 in 11 female and 1 in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the past year. The need for education on consent and respect is ongoing. 

2. Discuss Healthy Boundaries

Encourage youth to think about their own boundaries and how to communicate them clearly to their partners. Equally important is respecting the boundaries set by their partner. If their partner has not expressed any kind of boundaries, there is a conversation to be had. “I feel comfortable with this… what do you feel comfortable with?” Role-playing scenarios can be helpful for practicing how to set and respect boundaries in a variety of situations. When discussing boundaries, consider the different types of boundaries in a dating relationship: 

  • Personal space
    The youth and their partner should respect each other’s need for privacy, hobbies, and friends. It’s a major red flag if one partner wants access to all of the other’s free time. 
  • Time apart
    Each person should be able to tell their partner when they need to do things on their own. 
  • Communication
    Youth should be able to have open and honest conversations about boundaries without worry about judgment or repercussions. 
  • Emotional boundaries
    It is important for both partners to respect each other’s emotional needs and limits, and not invalidate each other’s feelings.
  • Digital boundaries
    Be sure to discuss responsible online behavior, including expectations around texting, sending pictures, social media posts, emails, and video calls. 

3. Encourage Healthy Conflict Resolution

Disagreements are a normal part of any relationship, but it’s how they are handled that matters. Teach youth techniques for resolving conflicts calmly and respectfully. This includes listening to their partner’s perspective, finding common ground, and working towards a compromise. Sometimes, “resolving calmly and respectively” means first taking a break and talking later. It is OK for youth (or any one) to get some space and cool down before coming back to the conversation. Help the youth you are working with to explore the options that are available to them, like writing out one’s feelings first and then engaging in dialogue (for example). When working with teens and young adults in dating relationships, the overarching goal is to emphasize the importance of understanding and empathy in resolving disputes. 

Next Steps

Relationships are the stuff of life. Our friends, our partners, our families – the people who come in (and sometimes out) of our lives help shape us and add meaning to our lives. It’s not just poetic, though. Close friendships and close-knit community relationships are associated with improved physical and mental health outcomes in the short- and long-term. Research shows that having social connections is one of the most reliable predictors of a long, healthy, and satisfying life

Youth-serving professionals can make a lasting impact on a youth’s ability to navigate friendships and dating relationships. 

  • Peers (friendships): By encouraging open communication and active listening, finding common interests and activities, and promoting anti-bullying strategies, professionals can help youth form strong and supportive friendships. 
  • Partners (dating relationships): Teaching the foundations of respect and consent, discussing healthy boundaries, and encouraging healthy conflict resolution are essential steps in guiding youth towards healthy dating relationships.

To further support youth in developing healthy relationships and ensure their well-being, consider exploring ΛDΛM, a technology that equips professionals to screen for bullying and intimate partner violence along with other age-targeted high-risk areas. ΛDΛM offers tools and resources to help you provide the best support possible to the youth you work with.