Learning strategies as to how to manage our personal relationships is a key skill that is rarely focused on when it comes to sex education. We are far too busy delivering condom demos to have time to focus on something so mundane.
However, if you think about the most pressing issues that young people face in their teenage years – relationships have got to be right up there. Regardless, whether we are talking about problems at home or managing our friendships, the pressure that comes from our peers, or as we get older, dealing with romantic and then sexual relationships – they are all equally important and come with their own problems.
One of the most troubling parts of negotiating relationships is when the foundations for that relationship shift as the needs of each person changes. That is no more apparent, than between parent’s and children as they hit their teenage years…
When we are first born our families are the single most important people in our lives. No matter who you happen to share a home with, be it mum, dad and siblings; just a mum; just a dad; grandparents; foster parents; adopted parents; grandparents; guardians; step parents, step brothers and sisters – whoever – your family are the ones you learn most from – they are your world. It is here in the home that the foundations for all your future relationships and learning are laid.
We are fed and watered; clothed and sheltered. It is our family that look after us and our wellbeing.
We learn to talk – to communicate and how to deal with our emotions and those of the people around us. Our moral compass is set as we are taught about right and wrong. And yes there may be other outside influences, such as classmates, and teachers – however, it is our family we return to each night and look to for advice and comfort.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to pick our own families – and some of us end up with a better start than others. In our early years our families become the foundation for our lessons in how to form relationships – we look at the relationships around us, process them and then spend our time trying to imitate them. This can either be a very positive thing or can be very damaging.
However, when a young person hits puberty, this all starts to change. Suddenly they strive for independence and want to step away from their families and instead stand on their own two feet. Ok, this is a bit of a lie – in fact all they do is to exchange the influence of their family for the shadow of their friends and peers.
The insecurities of their changing bodies and their sudden awareness of attraction and therefore how they are viewed by others around them, adds to the feelings of desperation to fit in – to be part of the group and be like everybody else: to wear the right clothes, the right trainers; have that phone, listen to those bands or own that latest accessory.
We all have that need to be liked and to be popular. Even if the people around us are not necessarily our friends they can still hugely influence our behaviour. No one wants to be last, or left out – which means we can compete to try to out do and show off in front of our peers – desperate to impress and to be cool. We also get draw in to the bi-stander effect – scared to step away from the crowd and speak up.
For some teenagers a once peaceful home can become a war zone as they try to assert themselves and push the boundaries whilst in contrast, their parents push back and strive to exert even more control in response. Most parents simply want their children to be happy, to do well, and achieve all their potential. However, their priorities and their teenage child’s are most likely going to be very different.
Trying to keep the channels of communication open between parent’s and child can become very difficult – especially when it comes to dealing with an emerging sexuality and personal identity. No matter how much they grow up. children will always remain children in their parent’s eyes…
Indeed, when it come to families – some young people are luckier than others…
As teachers, we do not have the power to control how young people’s parents chose to react to their teens. All we can influence are the young people themselves. By helping young people to explore issues around relationships – both within their families and within their peer groups – can be a real help.
Not only can we explore what makes a relationship healthy, but we can also look at how we might deal with issues if we were the parent – learning empathy and the ability to understand where another person is coming from again can be a huge step in the right direction.
One of the keys to managing relationships is balance:
One of the most important lessons you can learn in any relationship is balance. Managing your time to keep everyone – and yourself happy. Finding time to spend with your family (and fulfil family obligations – like an occasional visit to Grandma’s); making time for your friends; your partner – and not to mention your school work – but most importantly to make sure you have time out – time just for you to do what you want.
When it comes to balancing relationships – you not only have to manage time – but also how each group interact and whether they get on. How often do relationships fall apart because you new partner, however wonderful they might be simply doesn’t get on with your friends or your family don’t approve… Things can become very difficult if people don’t get on or feel pushed out.
Whatever the relationship you do not have to be permanently attached at the hip – this is an issue that many young people struggle to deal with; this goes for boyfriends/girlfriends and also best friends. It is easy to get so wrapped up in each other that you forget your other friends and family – or even you lose sight of yourself.
It can become very claustrophobic and you can end up feeling trapped. Or even worse, what happens when things go wrong or come to an end and suddenly you haven’t spoken or seen any of your friends for months – who are you going to turn to for support?
Indeed, there is a difference between spending time together and spending quality time together. You both need some space to breathe and do your own things. This can often be a little scary or make people a little insecure – but unfortunately you need to get over it – it is the only way for two people to survive in a long term relationship. You both need your own interests and time out just for you.
A useful way of exploring balance is to use Venn diagrams… (un)healthy Venn
Another key is Communication:
Essentially, regardless of the relationship – talking to each other about how you feel is key. How are you supposed to know what is going on in your partner’s, your parent’s or best-friend’s head and vice-versa if you don’t tell them?!? – we are not all psychic?
Plus, it is often hard to know what is going on as people can behave funny or react strangely when they are upset or something is bothering them… at the end of the day, we’re all different.
Now, talking is a two way process. They say you have two ears and only one mouth for a reason, as you should be doing twice as much listening as you do talking. When we feel like we aren’t being listened to, this is when we feel neglected, wronged or isolated. Whereas having someone who listens to you and takes interest in you is a wonderful thing and makes you feel special.
An important point to remember, you don’t have to agree with the people you care about all the time. In fact it would be kind of scary if you did agree on everything – and probably not all that healthy either.
Indeed, arguments do not have to be a bad thing and do not always have to lead to shouting and screaming. There is an old saying – if you have to raise your voice – you need to improve your argument… An argument should be a chance to test each other, explore ideas, scenarios and feelings not to score personal points.
Learning how to argue, or how to cope with disagreements is another big challenge in a relationship. As I just said, it should never be a chance to score points or to bring up past mistakes.
A relationship should be based on give and take – that does not mean – one person does all of the giving, whilst the other does all of the taking. A power difference is never a good thing; a relationship should not be a chance to bully someone else to make you feel better or to get your way all of the time.
We all want to be respected and appreciated – however in return you must treat others with respect and show them how much they mean to you too – respect is never a one way street.
It is always worth spending time with young people of all ages exploring what makes a good listener – and practicing positive listening skills. Give them practical techniques for how to broach difficult topics with loved ones – whether it is about learning how to pick the right moment to discuss a problem – or alternative methods of communicating whether that is by writing a letter or sending a txt… talk about the positives and negative points of different types of communication…
How can we expect young people to be good at communicating of we don’t give them opportunities to practice…?
- Exploring Relationships- design a character – this is a very useful activity that can form the basis for a number of sessions across a programme.