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).
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).
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