What do young people think about relationships these days? That’s what Dr. Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard and his team wanted to know. They set out to identify young people’s challenges and hopes, and who influences the way they think about relationships. Much of what they found surprised them.
“Based on the responses from our research with more than 3000 young adults and high school students, it is clear that we as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life - learn how to love and develop deep caring, healthy romantic relationships,” says Weissbourd.
Additionally, they found that most adults appear to do shockingly little to prevent or effectively address prejudice against women and sexual harassment among young people. These problems can infect both romantic relationships and many other areas of life.
Weissbourd was troubled that at least one-third of respondents in their most recent survey said:
It is rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television;
Society has reached a point that there is no more double standard against women; and
Too much attention is being given to the issue of sexual assault.
“Another finding I think parents will find most interesting - while parents are uptight about having the sex talk with their teen, 70 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds told us they wished they had received more information from their parents about how to have healthy relationships, including how to have a more mature relationship, how to deal with breakups, how to begin a relationship and how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship.”
On the positive side, it appears that teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the “hook-up culture.”
Weissbourd believes one of the biggest takeaways from this research is that a high percentage of young people want guidance about developing healthy relationships.
“I want parents to begin conversations with their teens about love,”Weissbourd says. “The media promotes so many misconceptions about what love looks like. We need to be teaching young people the difference between attraction, infatuation and love.”
Weissbourd believes we should help young people find answers to the following questions: Why can we be attracted to people who are unhealthy for us? How do you know when you are in love? Why and how can romantic relationships become deeply meaningful and gratifying? How can the nature of a romantic relationship and the nature of love itself change over a lifetime?
If you’re a parent, the report also encourages you to:
Teach your kids what it means to be respectful in a romantic relationship. Specifically identify what harassment looks like and what it means to be caring, and discuss the characteristics of a vibrant romantic relationship.
Step in and proactively address the qualities of a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy one. Intervene when you see inappropriate words or behavior, because silence can be misunderstood as permission to continue an unacceptable behavior.
Talk about what it means to be an ethical person. Teach young people the skills to maintain caring romantic relationships and how to treat each gender with dignity and respect. This also helps strengthen their ability to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives and to grow into ethical adults, community members and citizens.
“For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about romantic love and sex to popular culture is a dumbfounding abdication of responsibility,” Weissbourd contends. “Lots of middle and high-schoolers experience trauma at their first and failed attempts at relationships. We need to make sure that kids know that breakups are not the end of the world.
“The huge question for all of us is this: Given the troubling downsides of our neglect of these issues and the large health, educational and ethical benefits of taking them on, how can we not push down this path?”
The results of this study encourage me personally, because this is what we have been promoting for two decades. It’s gratifying to see research repeatedly validate something we have taught teens in the schools and adults in this community for many years: Healthy relationships are key to success, in more ways than one.