Sabrina Guo, Syosset High School, Syosset, New York, USA
During my upbringing in New York, I met a compassionate and respectful boy who showed extreme sensitivity towards consent and boundaries, a quality that immediately differentiated him from other boys at his age of thirteen. Over the course of our friendship, I learned that his parents divorced when he was a child. He described vivid memories of witnessing his father coming home from work drunk, and physically abusing his mother. I then realized why he was so conscientious: he was aware his father did not model acceptable behavior towards women. Being young, he was not fully aware of what was happening, but as he grew older, he began sharing with others his traumatic childhood and understanding how his perspective clouded his judgements regarding healthy relationships. In sharing perspectives with others, he discovered what they viewed as healthy and normal. Having an open space to dialogue and share experiences of relationships, whether first-hand or observed, like my friend had, should be an option for all teenagers across all countries, cultures, and borders. In the United States, and many other countries across the world, unfortunately the discussion of healthy teen romantic relationships is infrequent due to several factors including social stigma and lack of formal education on the topic. To mitigate this, relationship discussions should be integrated more extensively into high schools’ health curriculum globally, perhaps to the extent of a full credit class held in ninth grade, enabling students to make informed decisions sooner while gaining familiarity with their schools’ available guidance and resources.
All families across the world have one thing in common: their children form a blueprint of how to communicate, maintain, and develop relationships based on their primary caregivers’ actions (Howard, 2017). Brian F. Martin, US CEO and founder of the Childhood Domestic Violence Association, states: “The best predictor of whether you will be in a violent relationship is whether you grew up in one.” While it’s not hopeless for someone who grew up in an abusive home, without proper educational feedback, it is common for people to mirror negative childhood relationship patterns in their own romantic relationships. According to Rebecca Bergen, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, and the co-owner of Bergen Counseling Center in Chicago, “Whether or not a person tends to express their emotions more openly or tends to hold emotions in, especially negative emotions, oftentimes parallels how their parents communicated with each other” (Kirby, 2017). Many unhealthy relationships model negative patterns children were exposed to in their childhood. Without a balancing force, such as education in a safe setting, the cycle will continue, impacting not only that child’s life, but many generations to come.
Partner abuse is an additional component of unhealthy relationship behavior among young adults (Dovi, 2017). According to the US Department of Justice, partner abuse is unfortunately common amongst women between sixteen and twenty-four, who experience extremely high rates of intimate partner violence—almost triple the national average (“Dating Abuse Statistics,” n.d.). The US Bureau of Justice and Statistics reports that nearly 1.5 million high school students experience physical abuse in relationships yearly in the United States alone. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show that one in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner (“Dating Abuse Statistics,” n.d.). This phenomenon is not limited to the United States; partner abuse is a well-documented phenomenon in this age group in many other parts of the world as well. Discussing healthy relationships early is essential for students to understand the dynamics of healthy partnership, especially as they begin to form more serious romantic relationships with one another.
Research also shows that unhealthy relationship patterns are increasingly related to alarmingly high rates of attempted suicide, eating disorders, and drug use. For example, the CDC estimates that 42% of all suicides in the US are related to relationship problems. In other words, in 2016, approximately 18,900 US citizens died by suicide for reasons that were related to problems within their relationships (Lohmann, 2017). High schools in the US need an early and comprehensive education because these aspects of relationships are rarely portrayed in our culture (“The Health Benefits of Strong Relationships,” 2010). Media often depicts early infatuation and story tale romance that inevitably leads to a happy ending. In reality, healthy relationships are not as simple. Even in healthy relationships conflicts are unavoidable, and a key component of healthy relationship is resolving conflicts through good communication and mutual respect, allowing the relationship to blossom. Without awareness of these factors and skills during this foundational period of students’ lives, it may not be immediately apparent that a relationship is heading down an abusive, dangerous road.
Some may view a formal curriculum educating young adults on healthy romantic relationships as an overreach, believing that children should get all the information they need at home from their parents. However, such a course is precisely in response to the fact that some children do not receive a healthy perspective at home. Many schools in the US and other developed nations already undertake comprehensive sex education in health classes, which initially faced similar critiques. Taking the curriculum one step further by addressing healthy relationships, prevents the damage to physical health, mental health, academic performance, self-esteem, and could even positively impact the development of future offspring (“Strong relationships, Strong Health,” n.d.). Mandatory health classes are also beneficial over voluntary workshops or electives because they reduce social stigma since all are enrolled, rather than creating ostracization for students who “need it.” Moreover, a student might not even recognize their need for counseling. In developing nations, poverty and lack of appropriate role models contribute to dysfunctional romantic relations in young adults, and establishing sexual and relationship centered courses may break intergenerational patterns of abuse. Given the extensive repercussions, it is paramount for teens to have the proper tools to distinguish between unhealthy and healthy relationships early on.
Whether or not one has experienced the trauma of seeing unhealthy relationships unfold between parents, it’s vital for healthy romantic relationships to be covered more comprehensively in high schools’ health curriculum, in the US and abroad, as students make the important inevitable transition to adulthood and form relationships that potentially carry a lifetime of effects, both individually and societally.