Fostering Healthy Relationships Part 4: Talking to Kids about Relationships
Usually, when we hear the word “relationship,” we automatically think of a romantic partner. But, actually, we have relationships with everyone we know. Most of us were never taught about relationships, and therefore, it can be challenging to explain them to our kids. When you are in the middle of a relationship, it can be very difficult to navigate. Many kids with disabilities have fewer opportunities to develop friendships outside of school settings, and therefore, when they form a relationship with someone outside of their family, they may feel so flattered by their acceptance that it colors their interpretation of how they are treated. They may become overly compliant to maintain that friendship.
One of the most painful experiences for parents is to hear about our kids being bullied or mistreated. Unfortunately, when someone is in a relationship that is not good for them, it can take a long time to recognize that it is unhealthy. Do you ever remember having a friend who your parents or friends didn’t like? And do you remember how it felt to have them tell you that you should stay away from that person? Sometimes unhealthy relationships have a magnetic pull that will not easily let go. There may be times when we look at the children our kids chose to befriend and wonder about their choices. What is it about that person that makes my son or daughter want to be around them?
Because most of us were never taught about relationships ourselves, it may have never occurred to us to teach our kids about them. But like so many social skills associated with raising kids with disabilities, if we take the time to have conversations about relationships, we might be able to provide them with some strategies to develop strong, healthy relationships, and minimize the unhealthy ones. When we teach people with disabilities about abuse prevention, we can categorize relationships into three groups: healthy, unhealthy, or confusing.
The Three Types of Relationships
In a healthy relationship, we know we can truly be ourselves. We feel like we can say or do anything around someone without fear of judgement and our expectation is to be unconditionally supported. For many people, healthy relationships begin with their own family members, but it’s important to remember that that is not true for everyone. If you think about the people who make you feel better when you’ve had a really bad day, behaved badly, or made a mistake, usually that’s an example of a healthy relationship.
Almost everyone has been part of a friendship that becomes an unhealthy relationship. Unhealthy relationships are easy to identify when a person overtly hurts you or lies to you. But unhealthy relationships also involve those friends who may have the power to coerce you into doing things that you just don’t feel right about. There are predators who gradually and skillfully ease their way into someone’s life in order to take advantage of them. If you’ve ever spoken on the phone or answered an email by someone who was trying to scam you, you were a potential victim of a predator and experienced how easy it is to become unknowingly trapped.
Confusing relationships are the ones that run hot and cold. Sometimes the friend may seem genuine and truly caring, and other times distant or disrespectful. You may get fed up with this friend, only to have them do something surprising and thoughtful, which keeps you attached.
Feelings help determine the kind of relationship
The feelings that we have around others help us determine the kind of relationship that we have. Have you ever seen a person’s name pop up from an incoming phone call and felt a sense of dread about answering it? Sometimes that is situational, but other times, it’s a good indicator that your relationship with the caller is one that’s not good for you. Often, an unhealthy relationship can feel like you are a passenger in a car that is driving too fast. Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, fear of saying the wrong thing, or getting the silent treatment are all important feelings to acknowledge.
One strategy to help teach kids about relationships is analyzing situations as you see them. When watching television or listening to stories, take a moment to ask questions about how the characters might feel. For example, Harry Potter’s family do not include him when they go to restaurants or on vacation. How do you think that makes Harry feel? What kind of relationship do you think Harry has with his family? An example of a healthy relationship is Batman and Alfred. Alfred is one of the only people who knows Batman’s true identity, and he does not tell anyone. Is that a healthy relationship? Why? How would Batman feel when he is around Alfred?
Often, it’s difficult to extricate yourself from an unhealthy relationship because it may be with someone you see every day or who lives under your roof. We emphasize that you can always change your mind about who you decide to trust, even if it’s someone who you have known for a long time. Because you were friends with someone for a long time, does not require that you be friends forever.
Lastly, the most important thing to take away from this is that if you are in a relationship that is unhealthy, it is not your fault. Everyone has experienced an unhealthy relationship at some point in their lives. It is critical that our kids identify one adult who they can trust unconditionally. That way, if a child finds that they are in a relationship that is not healthy, they can talk about it with someone who they trust, who will not blame them and may be able to help. Often just talking to someone else about a problematic friendship helps validate your feelings and gain strength to change things in the relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Molly Dellinger-Wray and Parthy Dinora are part of the Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. They are also moms of amazing kids who thrived thanks to great special education services. Together with the VCU School of Social Work, they developed LEAP: Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention