As teenagers and young adults grow up, they may begin to explore romantic relationships. While these are normal milestones for a young adult, it’s important to talk with youth about boundaries and consent, and how they are important in any relationship, platonic or romantic.
Consent and Boundaries in Healthy Relationships
Boundaries are a set of guidelines to help protect your mental well-being and personhood. In a relationship, they help with balance and setting expectations between the people in the relationship. Consent is an important part of interacting with another person’s boundaries (platonic or romantic) and must always be freely and enthusiastically given.
Some youth may have experienced boundary and consent violations by people they should’ve been able to trust, and because of this, may misunderstand what healthy boundaries and consent looks like and may be distrustful of others. Helping them to rebuild that ability to trust others and learn that not everyone they meet is going to hurt them is crucial for them to have healthy relationships.
Helping them to understand that if you can’t trust your partner to respect your boundaries and vice versa, the relationship won’t work and could become unhealthy. Any good relationship, romantic or platonic, is founded on trust – if they don’t have that with someone, whether it’s caused by something that person has done or the other’s insecurities, the relationship will not be successful.
At the same time, it may not be an issue of trust – people in a relationship may not end up having the same boundaries, and that’s okay. It may just be a sign that it’s time to part ways. It’s not anyone’s fault the relationship ended; it simply didn’t work out. Sometimes when two people have romantic feelings for one other, this can be hard and they can feel like they must “make it work,” but at the end of the day, if it’s not working and the boundaries are unhealthy, it’s often best to walk away.
It’s helpful to remind youth that boundaries are for themselves and what they need; boundaries are not enforcing a set of rules or control over the other person in the relationship. Everyone is allowed to protect their mental health, but trying to enforce one person’s personal boundaries onto another to control them can turn emotionally abusive. For example, if a person wants their partner to dress a certain way, “to respect their boundaries,” that’s not healthy boundary setting – that is an attempt at controlling the actions and behaviors of another.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse, or “psychological maltreatment” is an umbrella term for a range of abusive behavior, like belittlement of another person, using derogatory language towards them, or gaslighting them (calling into question a person’s reality to avoid accountability and manipulating them). Go over some of these terms with the youth in your care, especially words like “gaslight” or “boundaries” that they may see misused often on social media and talk with them about what these words really mean and look like in real life.
Emotional abuse can be hard to detect, especially for a young adult with less experience who may be more vulnerable. Talk with the youth in your care about the ways in which emotional abuse may go unnoticed or written off as “romantic” in movies or TV shows. For example, in a romantic relationship, a partner constantly needing to know their partner’s whereabouts, who they are with, what they are doing, walking, or driving them everywhere, may be portrayed as romantic in a show, but in reality, can be an unhealthy violation of the other partner’s personal boundaries.
Creating these open conversations can be hard and even uncomfortable, but it’s important to talk to them about the realities of what real, healthy relationships look like, so that everyone can feel safe in their current and future relationships.
This blog article was contributed by Jessica Swartz, Mental Health Therapist Lead at Nexus-Indian Oaks Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.