By Gillian Silver, MPH, CHES | January 8, 2020
Research Dissemination Specialist, ETR
My very first day working at ETR fell on our organization’s All Staff Retreat. It was an energizing day that allowed our growing staff to share priorities and interests, and to embrace a growth mindset in how we approach our work. An idea explored by Carol S. Dweck, adopting a growth mindset helps us move through challenges by identifying the opportunity within them.
In my previous work as a sexuality educator and advocate for people who experienced intimate partner violence and sexual violence, I had numerous discussions with people of all ages about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I helped young people discuss what makes a relationship healthy, how to spot the warning signs of abuse, and what they might do if they or someone they knew were being harmed. The discussion gave young people a chance to talk about what they wanted in their relationships.
In these limited interactions, however, we weren’t able to go deep into the nuances of romantic relationships or build the skills necessary to be in a healthy relationship. That’s why it was so exciting for me to learn that my new employer had recently convened a group of thought leaders for its annual Kirby Summit (honoring ETR researcher Douglas Kirby) to discuss issues of what healthy adolescent relationships look like and how adults can support young peoples’ growth.
Inspired by my introduction to the organization, I wondered how the field of sexuality education can apply a #growthmindset to the topic of adolescent romantic relationships.
Researchers and educators at ETR have spent the last several years exploring how the field of developmental science can inform our understanding of how romantic relationships contribute to young peoples’ growth.
Adolescence is a period that offers young people the opportunity to develop skills necessary for adulthood. Many of these skills can be practiced and strengthened by exploring romantic feelings and relationships. Learning how to recognize romantic feelings (and what to do about them!), expressing needs and supporting others, coping with and moving forward after rejection or a breakup, all help young people work through some of these key developmental tasks. These experiences can serve as building blocks for the skills needed for healthy relationships in adulthood.
ETR researchers have operationalized some of the science-based foundational concepts of adolescent relationships. Some examples of key developmental tasks and how they can be practiced within romantic relationships include:
For years, the field of sexuality education has focused on reducing risky sexual behaviors. We have done this by working to help young people build the skills necessary to minimize certain behaviors that increase the risk of HIV/STI transmission and unintended pregnancy, such as delaying sexual activity or using condoms or contraception. What we often leave out in sexuality education is that positive risk-taking is an important developmental task for adolescents. This omission presents an opportunity for growth in the field of sexuality education.
Positive risks could include trying something new or uncomfortable that may lead to positive outcomes. For example, simply engaging in romantic relationships can be risky—expressing interest in another person comes with the risk of being rejected. For LGBTQ youth, exploring one’s authentic identity comes with the risk of being mistreated in a homophobic and transphobic society. Identifying your own values comes with the risk of realizing that they may not align with those of your family or friends. Taking these kinds of risks can lead to building skills and developing fulfilling relationships. Taking these risks during adolescence allows young people to develop in a supportive environment—one where family, friends, teachers, and other trusted adults can help them grow.
A single lesson about healthy relationships within a sexuality education curriculum isn’t enough to help young people develop relationship skills. We learn skills by practicing, making mistakes, reflecting on them, and then trying a new approach next time. Adults who care, listen and guide, can help support young people along this growth process.
Here at ETR, I helped develop a new tool for trusted adults to support young people’s healthy relationships. This tool contains tips and identifies critical qualities of healthy adolescent romantic relationships. Some tips include:
Learn more about the qualities of healthy adolescent relationships and tips for supporting adolescents as they navigate relationships in ETR’s Trusted Adults Brief.
Gillian Silver, MPH, CHES, is Research Dissemination Specialist at ETR. Silver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org