A Better Way to get it Through Their Heads: Educating adolescents on healthy relationships

Couple Kissing

Let’s be honest, with nearly 3 out of 4 adolescent romantic relationships experiencing some emotional, physical, mental, or sexual abuse, something has got to give (Foshee, Benefield, Suchindran, Ennett, Bauman, Karriker-Jaffe, & Mathias, 2009). How can we get healthy relationships through to adolescents’ head? Adolescents’ relationships are an interesting phenomenon that undergoes numerous and relentless changes. In a 4-6 year time frame, the dynamics of adolescents’ relationships change from not being interested in romantic relationships to engaging in some sexual activity (de Graaf, Vanwesenbeeck, Meijer, Woertman, & Meeus, 2009).

In late childhood, young people experience relationships primarily through same-sex peers and attachment of their parents. They then start to detach themselves from their parents and engage in all-gender friendships (Rosenthal, Blythe, & American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007). Some of these friendships develop into romantic relationships (de Graaf, Vanwesenbeeck, Meijer, Woertman, & Meeus, 2009). One study found that 25% of 12 year olds reported dating another individual verses 75% of 17 and 18 year olds (Rosenthal et al., 2007).

Romantic relationships play an important role in adolescent development. Romantic relationships can influence identity development, provide social support, influence development of secure attachment, and influence developmentally appropriate transformations in family and peer relationships (Foshee et al., 2009). These development roles can affect their personal behavior and healthy (Tharp, Carter, Fasula, Hatfield-Timajchy, Jayne, Latzman, & Kinsey, 2013).

In addition to the changes amongst adolescent relationships, these young individuals are going through constant physical, emotional, and social change (Tharp et al., 2013). Through these learning processes and changes, it is key to slowly start building the skills needed for these young people to learn how to be healthy adults who foster healthy relationships. Individuals who foster healthy relationships have more respect, trust, honesty, and has someone who can be counted on (Haglund, Belknap, & Garcia, 2012). Adolescents need to be equipped with the skills and tools that help develop healthy attitudes and behaviors when engaging in any relationship, sexual or not (Tharp et al., 2013).

Peers are Steering This Boat

When educating adolescents, who is the best educator, parents/guardians, teachers, or friends? Adolescents get most of their information from peers, despite whether the information is correct or not (Shah & Zelnik, 1981; Yarber, Sayad, & Strong, 2009). They not only listen to peers but they also adopt perceived peer norms. Adolescents observe their peer’s behavior and then create and adopt these new perceptions. These new perceptions then guide the adolescents’ attitudes and behaviors (Choukas-Bradley, Giletta, Widman, Cohen, & Prinstein, 2014; Potard, Courtois, & Rusch, 2008; Vrangalova & Savin-Williams, 2011; Xie, Li, Boucher, Hutchins, & Cairns, 2006).

The power that peers have on adolescents can be harnessed and used for the wellbeing of other young people or even the whole student body. The goal is to use peers to educate other adolescents on healthy relationship characteristics so that the student body can witness this new perceived peer norm. This new perceived peer norm will then cause a positive rippling effect on other adolescents (Potard et al., 2008; Xie et al., 2006).

Furthermore, selecting a “power couple(s)” will add another positive dimension to educating adolescents on healthy relationships. A “power couple” is two adolescents that are in a committed romantic relationship with each other and has influence on the majority of the student body. Training these power couples on healthy relationships, accountability, and ways to answer other peer’s questions will aid in the new peer norm. These adopted peer norms will aid in healthier relationships, accurate knowledge of healthy relationships, while decreasing abuse (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). Having these power couples as educators allows others to have positive community role models, resource people, and special advocates (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).

Keep it Holistic and Accurate

When educating “power couple(s)” and/or adolescents, it is important to include holistic, accurate information about relevant problems i.e., high intensity conflict, unfamiliar emotions, having boundaries, realistic expectations, trustworthiness, honestly, and equality (Wolfe, Wekerle, Scott, & Straatman, 2004; Sexpressions teaching manual, 2013). Due to the innovation and trial and error of adolescent relationships, it is important to emphasize that healthy relationships are free from all forms of violence (Rosenthal et al., 2007). Relationship violence refers to verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual violence that occurs among romantic and sexual partners (Rosenthal et al., 2007). Loving relationships should be characterized by honesty, equality, individual wholeness, open communication and shared responsibilities (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).

There can be disadvantages to primarily focus on either healthy relationships or unhealthy relationships (Brew, 2007). Having a lesson that is primarily focused on healthy relationships, the adolescents will not know what to look for in an unhealthy relationship. Furthermore, having a lesson that is primarily focused on aspects of unhealthy relationships can cause adolescents to have a negative outlook on any relationship, healthy or not (Brew, 2007). Having a holistic view on all relationships will help these adolescents make informed decisions about their relationships and life (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).

The Point

Adolescents undergo many changes and learning experiences (Rosenthal et al., 2007; Tharp et al., 2013). Through these changes, it is important to start instilling values of healthy relationships while educating these young people on the dynamics of relationships, sexual or not. Peers are adolescent’s most effective educators so it is important to harness this power. Due to the enormous power of peers, educating all adolescents on healthy relationships while mentoring “power couples” will allow the rippling effect of healthy relationships to trickle down and influence the whole student body. Adolescents will then adopt this peer norm, which will encourage healthy relationships and minimize abuse (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996; Potard et al., 2008; Xie et al., 2006).



Brew, L. (2007). Ungolden Silence: A Thought Provoking Novel (p. 351). Xlibris Corporation.

Choukas-Bradley, S., Giletta, M., Widman, L., Cohen, G. L., & Prinstein, M. J. (2014). Experimentally measured susceptibility to peer influence and adolescent sexual behavior trajectories: A preliminary study. Developmental Psychology, 50(9), 2221-2227. doi:10.1037/a0037300

de Graaf, H., Vanwesenbeeck, I., Meijer, S., Woertman, L., & Meeus, W. (2009). Sexual Trajectories during Adolescence: Relation to Demographic Characteristics and Sexual Risk. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 38(2), 276-282. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9281-1

Foshee, V. A., Benefield, T., Suchindran, C., Ennett, S. T., Bauman, K. E., Karriker-Jaffe, K. J., & … Mathias, J. (2009). The Development of Four Types of Adolescent Dating Abuse and Selected Demographic Correlates. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 19(3), 380-400. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2009.00593.x

Haglund, K., Belknap, R. A., & Garcia, J. T. (2012). Mexican American Female Adolescents’ Perceptions of Relationships and Dating Violence. Journal Of Nursing Scholarship, 44(3), 215-222. doi:10.1111/j.1547-5069.2012.01452.x

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Potard, C. C., Courtois, R. R., & Rusch, E. E. (2008). The influence of peers on risky sexual behavior during adolescence. European Journal Of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, 13(3), 264-270. doi:10.1080/13625180802273530

Rosenthal, S. L., Blythe, M. J., & American Academy of, P. (2007). Adolescent Sexuality. [Elk Grove Village, Ill.]: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Sexpressions teaching manual: Understanding adolescent sexuality and teaching sex ed. (2013). Sexpressions.

Shah, F., & Zelnik, M. (1981). Parent and Peer Influence on Sexual Behavior, Contraceptive Use, and Pregnancy Experience of Young Women. Journal Of Marriage & Family, 43(2), 339.

Tharp, A. T., Carter, M., Fasula, A. M., Hatfield-Timajchy, K., Jayne, P. E., Latzman, N. E., & Kinsey, J. (2013). Advancing Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health by Promoting Healthy Relationships. Journal Of Women’s Health (15409996), 22(11), 911-914. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4534

Vrangalova, Z., & Savin-Williams, R. C. (2011). Adolescent Sexuality and Positive Well-Being: A Group-Norms Approach. Journal Of Youth & Adolescence, 40(8), 931-944. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9629-7

Wolfe, D. A., Wekerle, C., Scott, K., & Straatman, A. (2004). Predicting Abuse in Adolescent Dating Relationships Over 1 Year: The Role of Child Maltreatment and Trauma. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 113(3), 406-415. doi:10.1037/0021-843.113.3.406

Xie, H., Li, Y., Boucher, S. M., Hutchins, B. C., & Cairns, B. D. (2006). What makes a girl (or a boy) popular (or unpopular)? African American children’s perceptions and developmental differences. Developmental Psychology, 42(4), 599-612. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.4.599

Yarber, W. L., Sayad, B. W., & Strong, B. (2009). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN-978-0-07-337088-0.

10 responses to “A Better Way to get it Through Their Heads: Educating adolescents on healthy relationships

  1. Arial, your article is captivating! I always knew many adolescents struggled with dating and abuse but had no idea it was 3 out of 4. The idea of having an identified “power couple” within a school system is very interesting and I’m curious if other schools have ever tried this tactic. I would think schools would have to identify various power couples, not just one, so that students of different backgrounds, nationalities, sexual identities, etc are represented. This way, students would find they can relate to their peer educators not only on the basis of age, but other aspects of their personal identity as well. As a result, I think their learning would be greatly enhanced 🙂

  2. I very much enjoyed the focus on healthy relationships in this educational strategy – and agree that there is a need to discuss unhealthy relationships to ensure student awareness. A few questions I have regarding this strategy are: How does the school/administration identify these power couples? Are they nominated by the faculty? Further, how do they ensure that they have adequate and complete information regarding how healthy their relationship is?
    I also agree with Emily that it is important to provide a selection of different types of relationships to provide representation for all types of relationships. I think this is a wonderful idea that can model healthy adolescent relationships in a way that is relevant to students.

  3. What an excellent article! Adolescents are constantly changing their relationships with their peers and with themselves. Knowing this, it never ceases to amaze me how education around healthy relationships is often left out of curriculum. Though the statistic that 3 out of 4 teens are experiencing some kind of relationship abuse is saddening, I can’t say I found it shocking. There is little educating being done to help adolescents navigate these waters.

    While I like the idea of a “power couple”, I can’t stop thinking about the logistics of identifying a couple or couples that would be an example of the many relationships that are possible. I also worry that the label “power couple” would place extra stress on these individuals and on their relationship. If the “power couple” sets the standard, what happens when the “power couple” breaks up? I think identifying some celebrity couples who have seemingly healthy relationships could get a similar point across without putting additional pressure on the “power couple”

  4. Like Emily, I had no idea that the statistics for abusive relationships among teens was so high! That is a staggering number. I love your idea of having peer to peer education because teens are so influenced by their peers. I do wonder, however, if using a “power couple” my put undue pressure on the teens involved. In line with what Nicole mentions, do you think that the people in that couple may feel pressured to be perfect? What happens if they break up? I think the concept is sound one but I would be interested to see how it works in practice. Thanks for a great article!

  5. Echoing other comments here, I also wonder how the “power couple” situation would work. I tend to worry about popularity struggles and whether or not students would view this couple as appropriate positive role models or if they would feel threatened by their existence. If such a program were put into place there would be an importance on being inclusive with the labeling of the power couples in a school by making sure that diverse relationships are represented. I think such a thing would have to implemented in very specific school environments.

  6. Arial,

    I really enjoyed your perspective on adolescent relationships. I love the idea of nominating the “power couples” as a strategy for informing students about healthy relationships. I think that this is an amazing relevant way to get important messages to the student body. Teens, with their raging hormones and desire to fit in are so much more likely to take advice from and mirror their peers.
    As the previous comments state, I also agree that there is a need for diverse relationships if this strategy is to work across the entirety of the students.
    There are concerns about the power couple status becoming a popularity contest. It is essential that all of the couple options are weighed.

  7. Your statistical findings are very shocking! I was not aware of the high prevalence of abuse in adolescent dating. I wonder how long has this been the case. Being big sister of a 15 year old, it really concerns me.
    I amazed when I realized all that occurs between the ages of 12 and 18! The human mind and body progress so fast!
    I was also shocked to find that 1/4 of 12 year olds are in a relationship. I can recall being 12 and I was very busy riding my bike and watching cartoons. I wonder if the media plays a part in the need to date so young and the abuse?
    I also wonder how power couples are selected? Is it a popularity thing? How can ensure that the power couples are not experiencing the same issues that 3 out of 4 adolescents experience?

  8. I was very intrigued by your article. I have always been interested in how to work more effectively with teens. This is a great foundation on what to expect, which factors to focus on and provide a holistic approach. Our society has a way of always telling whats going to go wrong if you are to engage in a behavior prematurely or “recklessly”, but never focused on the pleasure and healthy aspect of those behaviors. It has to be understood that adolescents will forever have these deep feelings and attachments throughout their teenage years, so, why not show them how to identify and build those healthy relationships. Teaching them early on will most likely carry into their adulthood where they will be able to maintain healthy relationships as adults.

  9. I think that this is an amazing relevant way to get important messages to the student body. Teens, with their raging hormones and desire to fit in are so much more likely to take advice from and mirror their peers.

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