5. Core Challenge #2:
Building Connections and Relationships
“The Weird Challenge—You and Others”
This is often the toughest of the big challenges because it can just get so weird and unpredictable and involve such strong emotions, particularly with friends and family. Some teenagers have consistent friendships for years, but most see friends come and go, sometimes in a confusing swirl.
Part of what makes this challenge so weird is that everyone is in it together and trying to find their way. Your parents are trying to find their way. Your peers are trying to find their way. Teachers, coaches and adults in youth oriented organizations have figured it out, but the people closest to you probably haven’t.
Webs of Relationships
There are lots of possible connections and you don’t need a whole lot to be OK, but the more connections you have to others the better, because so many relationships in the teenage years are so turbulent.
Examples of Relationships in a Relationship Web
- Extended family
- Peer group(s)
- Faith community
- Interest groups
- Volunteer settings
The key is to build a web of relationships—some close and some not—that provides a number of connections for you. It’s kind of like being a spider in a web. You make a bunch of connections, take care of them, replace some when they break, etc. Parts of the web will last a long time and other parts will come and go. This is similar to the key to building a strong sense of personal characteristics, which is to pay attention to more than a few.
You can start to see that the teen heroic journey is often a matter of creating a tapestry (personal characteristics) or web (relationships) or tool kit (competencies). And it takes time, so relax and be curious and find others to travel with on the journey.
Relationships With Parents—Changing
Family relationships are almost always a challenge as the parental relationships change by definition. Parents are challenged to let go of the roles they had when you were a kid and you are challenged to step more and more into being the author of your life and taking on more responsibility. That is rarely an easy transition—for you or your parents. In fact, it frequently feels to parents and teenagers that they are in a dark room throwing themselves against the wall to find the door.
As a teenager, you are experimenting with who you are and how to relate and you are also in the process of separating from your parents in order to become your own person. Your parents are trying to figure out how to be good parents and relate to a son or daughter who is kind of a moving target as a teenager. It’s a challenge to keep forming a healthy relationship with all the parts moving (and they have to move).
Relationships With Peers—Deepening and Difficult
Relationships with peers during the teenage years can come and go at a dizzying pace. Peer relationships become deeper and more important, but they also become more challenging because everyone involved is growing and changing and experimenting. It’s hard to make connections and keep them with all that motion. Particularly when you don’t have years of experience with mature relationships to rely on.
Some teenagers have a circle of friends that lasts for many years. Many don’t and go through several groups, multiple relationships with individual friends and have periods where they don’t feel very connected at all. Often relationships have to end or become much less important in order for the people involved to grow. That goes for groups/cliques also.
If you’re struggling with peer relationships you are, ironically, part of the biggest club—teenagers struggling with peer relationships. It’s not at all comfortable and can be really painful at times, but it’s pretty normal and it doesn’t last forever.
"You have people come into your life shockingly and surprisingly. You have losses that you never thought you'd experience. You have rejection and you have to learn how to deal with that and how to get up the next day and go on with it."
– Taylor Swift
Boyfriends and Girlfriends—Strange New World
These relationships are all over the board. They range from couples who come together at 15 and stay together for the rest of their lives to teenagers who don’t form strong boy/girl relationships until after high school. As with peer relationships boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are naturally challenged by how much everyone is changing and how little experience you have to draw upon.
What do I want in the relationship? What does he/she want? What do I have to offer? What do we do about sex? Are other relationships OK? How do we make decisions? How do we communicate with each other? What behaviors are OK and which behaviors are not? There are lots of questions to be dealt with in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and every relationship is different.
The Toughest Dilemma—Identity vs. Relationships
“How much of myself do I have to give up to be in a relationship?” This is not always a major dilemma, but it often is during the teen years. As with many of the ways we are tested during our time as teenagers, this issue continues well into adulthood and in some ways will always be with us.
"The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you except yourself."
– Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle
This dilemma can come up in terms of relationships with parents, peers (individually or in groups) or boyfriends/girlfriends. It can also come up with clubs, teams, organizations and even faith communities.
This is simply part of the natural challenge of being a teenager—often difficult, but normal. So the identity challenge is to find yourself and the relationship challenge is to get connected without losing yourself.
Ten Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
There are lots of ways to portray the characteristics of a good relationship. Feel free to augment or refine this list if you like. Not all good relationships have all of these characteristics all of the time, nor are all of them of equal strength or importance in a particular relationship. These characteristics are relevant for friendships as well as girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. They are the building blocks in the foundation of relationships.
Learning and Developing.
Building and maintaining good relationships is a life-long challenge and as teenagers it can be pretty uneven in terms of developing these characteristics. Wherever you are in your relationships, build from there. For example, if you review a relationship, you will probably see characteristics that are right where you want them as well as seeing characteristics that need work. Just appreciate what you have already built and focus on two-three characteristics that you would like to build. “How can I be a better friend?” “How can we build a better relationship?”
We all make mistakes in relationships, so a mistake, stumble or even an infrequent lashing out in frustration or anger should not necessarily mean that a relationship isn’t a good one. An ongoing pattern of poor behaviors, however, would mean that it is a questionable relationship.
Where there are screw-ups, it is always important in recovering to take responsibility for the screw-up, ask forgiveness and commit to avoiding that screw-up in the future. It is also important to be ready to forgive—in good relationships, not in abusive ones.
- Mutual Respect. Respect can be in regard to opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and differences in general. It can also relate to personal boundaries/space, including touching. In respectful relationships partners do not diminish (put down) one another in front of others or privately. In respectful relationships partners also accept each other as they are, even though they may challenge and support each other in growing.
- Mutual Trust. Trust is a two-way street—it means making the leap to trust another as well as behaving in trustworthy ways. “I choose to trust you until you show me that I can’t.” “I will act in consistently trustworthy ways.” Sometimes trust is violated, even in the best of relationships. If it’s not a pattern or too big a violation, you can usually recover from such a screw-up and even build a stronger relationship. That doesn’t hold true if the violations continue.
- Honesty/Genuineness. No lying, including by omission. Being honest also requires knowing what you are thinking and feeling and being able to communicate that. This takes the courage to put yourself out there, which is a deceptively tough challenge requiring more courage than you might think. Do you know where each other stand? Are each person’s characteristics and behaviors consistent (or do you not know what to expect from day to day or week to week)? Being honest and genuine doesn’t mean that you can’t keep some things privat
- Equality. This has a lot to do with power, which is a key issue in relationships. Do both partners have an equal say in decision-making? Does each partner’s needs and desires matter? How is power shared? Do you have the same standards for each other? Equality doesn’t mean keeping every little thing in balance all the time because there is a rhythm to relationships, but it does mean making sure that there is a general balance of equality.
- Appreciation/Positive Approach. Do people clearly value each other and express that? Are people in the relationship open to feeling appreciated by the other (that’s surprisingly tough sometimes)? You celebrate each other’s accomplishments—large or small. Partners bring a positive approach to life and the friendship. There is fun and enjoyment in the relationship.
- Security/Safety. Does each person feel safe from physical, emotional, sexual or other forms of abuse? Is it safe to be fully present in the relationship, sharing hopes and fears, interests and needs, thoughts and emotions, doubts, etc.? Can you be yourself in the relationship? Taken beyond basic security, is the relationship a safe haven from the stresses of life?
- Emotional Competence. Being emotionally competent means being aware of your own emotions and being able to manage those emotions. It means you can manage your emotions without just “dumping” them and expecting others to deal with them. You can deal with conflicts and disagreements peacefully and creatively. In healthy relationships empathy is practiced—being aware of others’ experience and aware of your impact on them through behaviors (or lack of). In healthy relationships anger is managed and is neither too frequent nor too intense.
- Communication. Do you share your own thoughts and feelings and do you show an active interest in others’? Can you talk openly about problems, hear each other out, respect differing needs or opinions and find ways to compromise—to meet as many of each other’s interests as possible. Is really listening a key element in the relationship?
- Separate Lives. You enjoy spending time apart and you have an individual sense of identity. You enjoy each other’s company, but also enjoy other relationships and activities. In fact, the parts of your lives that are separate enrich the experience you have together.
- Mutual Support. You make each other better people. You challenge each other to be your best and support each other when doubting, injured, sick, scared or under a lot of stress. You know the other “has your back”
Characteristics of Bad Relationships—Warning Signs
Not surprisingly, these characteristics are often the opposite of good relationships. To be more specific, however, you are in a bad relationship if very many of the following are true.
Note. The difference between a bad relationship and an abusive relationship can be a matter of either the number or intensity of unhealthy behaviors that characterize the relationship. It is also an abusive relationship if the characteristics include physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
- He constantly checks up on you, including looking at your phone, asking friends about you, quizzing you
- She won’t let you talk with other girls
- He lies to you
- She threatens to hurt herself or others if you don’t do as required or try to break up
- He loses his temper quickly or easily and shows big mood swings
- She keeps you away from your friends
- He pressures you into behaviors you don’t want to do, including sexual activity, drug/alcohol use or other risky behaviors
- She does things that scare you or hurt you – or others (including animals)
- She puts you down in front of others – or even when you are alone
- He holds you back in activities you care about (school, sports, performing arts, community activities)
- She tries to change you, not accepting who you are
Your Thoughts and Feeling as a Test
Another way to check to see if you are in a bad or abusive relationship is to see if you are experiencing the following thoughts and feelings.
- You find yourself increasingly less confident in yourself
- You are spending less and less time with friends, family or in your normal activities
- Your appearance, emotions, grades or other performance indicators have changed significantly since the relationship started.
- You worry a lot about how they will react to things you say or do
- You feel that your needs and desires come second – or aren’t valued at all
- You hesitate to express your thoughts and feelings
- Others warn you about this person or group
- The emotions expressed towards you are mostly negative – angry, blaming, putdowns, disappointment
- You are starting to trust your own judgments
- Your sense of your own worth is declining
- You feel like a possession