3 March 2010

Who is watching your relationship?

Parents and caregivers have far more influence than they might think on how young people develop and conduct their relationships, according to a research study released today.

The Families Commission’s Supporting Young People’s Relationships shows that the popular perception that “kids never listen” is not entirely true when it comes to teenage relationship issues.

Instead, the study reveals that even when young people are not talking much, and don’t seem to be listening, they are still watching. Young people learn how to conduct their own relationships from watching how their parents behave, and they carry these lessons into their own adult relationships.

“It is common to believe that teenagers listen to their friends more than to the adults in their lives,” says Chief Commissioner Dr Jan Pryor, “but this study shows that parents are a major source of support for young people when they are going through relationship issues.

“Children and young people absorb information about what is acceptable behaviour in intimate relationships from their parents. Most of us are aware of this role modelling aspect of parenting, but sometimes we forget and get caught up in our personal needs. It can be hard, but it is important to ask ourselves, ‘who is watching our relationship?’ How we behave in the challenging times is just as influential as how we behave when things are easy. How you act now helps teach your children how to manage the good and the bad in their own adult relationships.”

The report shows that when parents are able to discuss differences with each other constructively, young people are more likely to be able to develop their own relationships positively.

An issues paper released last year by the Commission showed that separation can be a time when parents are at risk of forgetting that they are role models.

“It is possible – although sometimes difficult - to be a good role model and support your teenage children even if you are going through a separation,” says Dr Pryor, “and it doesn’t have to be just parents. Other adults in young people’s lives can also demonstrate positive relationships and be a source of confidence and information. Aunties, uncles, family friends and foster parents can all role model healthy family interaction and how to relate to a partner.”

Dr Pryor says young people learn how to develop intimate relationships during their adolescence, and the ways they do this carry over into their roles as parents and family members later in life.

“Those first relationships are fundamental in helping to set the patterns for young people’s future family lives.”

School is also as a place where young people learn about relationships according to those interviewed in the research. The report recommends that the school curriculum should be changed to ‘Sexuality and Relationships Education’, with a stronger emphasis on relationships.

“It’s important that young people get the biological knowledge they need about human sexuality at school, but this needs to be put into the context of relationships and the development of relationship skills such as empathy and responsibility for others if they are to learn how to develop healthy partnerships,” Dr Pryor says.