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Good boundaries are essential to healthy and respectful relationships. By knowing how to help your teenager set good relationship boundaries with romantic partners, you can equip them to have healthy and safe relationships. Plus, they will feel comfortable talking with you about their relationship.

Talking about good boundaries

Knowing what boundaries are, knowing where your boundaries lie, and being able to communicate boundaries to a partner - these are the essential principles that will equip your teenager to have safe romantic and sexual relationships.

You can help by talking about romantic relationship boundaries with your teenager, and by being a good role model. Teenagers subconsciously look to adults for models on how to behave in relationships. By modelling what you talk about, you will help them.

Boundaries for teenage relationships

Ask your teenager to think about what they are comfortable with in a romantic relationship. Not just in terms of sex, but also in terms of how independent they want to be, displays of affection, what they would want to share with a partner. Give them some examples.

  • When to say ‘I love you’. It is ok not to feel that way straight away. However they feel, they should be open about it.
  • Time with friends. Your teenager (and their partner) should feel able to hang out with friends, and people of the same or opposite sex, without having to ask permission.
  • Time without each other. Your teenager should be able to tell their romantic partner when they need to do things on their own, and not feel trapped into spending all of their time together.
  • Digital and social boundaries. Is it okay for their partner to friend or follow their friends on social media? Is it okay to use each other’s devices? Is it okay to post about their relationship? Because social media is public, these are some boundaries your teenager should talk about.

Point out that the only way they will know what their own boundaries are, and what their partner is or isn’t comfortable with, is by asking and talking. Good relationships come from good communication. Practice some questions they might ask.

Boundaries around sex in a relationship

Sex is something your teenager will probably want to try at some point. Help your teenager prepare for conversations about sexual boundaries by talking about some of these topics.

  • Setting sexual boundaries. Tell your teenager that it is important to talk about sex with their partner, what they do and do not want to do, and how that changes over time. Reiterate that they have the right to decide when (and whether) they will have sex and what sex acts they are comfortable with.
  • Consent. Talk about consent, and the importance of both people feeling safe and being in full agreement about sex acts. Emphasise to your child that it’s ok to change your mind, even during sex.
  • Sex isn’t currency. For example, saying ‘I love you’ or giving gifts does not obligate them to have sex or do anything in response.
  • How will they know when they are ready? Encourage them to ask themselves questions like why do they want to have sex, do they feel safe, are they more anxious than excited, do they feel pressured? This will help them know if they are ready.
  • Safe sex. Make sure your kids know about safe sex, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. Encourage them to talk to their partner about how they will protect themselves if they are considering sex.

Managing difficulties in a relationship

Every relationship has some difficulties and boundaries get crossed sometimes. We don’t always know where the line is until we cross it. Some advice you can provide:

  • Recognise the real source of conflict. This is the first step - because it is often not what you are arguing about. Encourage them to think about how they feel when they are arguing, to help find out what is really wrong.
  • Talk. Your partner can’t know what is wrong if you don’t tell them. Encourage them to stay calm, and collected, and lay out what is bothering them. Suggest they don’t try and talk about it when one of them is angry. Share the youth fact sheet Tips for communicating.
  • Compromise. A healthy relationship is a balance between the needs of all people involved. Encourage them to chat and figure out what is important to each of them, and what they can let go of if they need to.

Conflict and unhealthy relationships

Not every relationship is a good one, and sometimes people don’t respect boundaries, no matter how well they are communicated. Talk about the non-negotiable things that they should never put up with. These should include:

  • Making them feel disrespected,
  • Not being open and honest,
  • Disregarding what is important to them,
  • Verbal and emotional abuse,
  • Physical violence and abuse,
  • Controlling what they do and whom they see.

Stress to your child that if a person is crossing these non-negotiable boundaries, something needs to change, and you can help if they need it. Having no relationship is better than having a bad relationship. If they can’t work through problems without these things happening, they should end it. 

If you are worried that your child is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, ask your child to call 1800RESPECT to ask for advice from an expert. Read the youth fact sheet Signs of an abusive relationship for more information.

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