How Teens Benefit from Healthy Relationships with Family and Friends
Every Sunday, my extended family gathers together for dinner, but one recent family dinner was particularly special because my youngest cousin just graduated high school. As I met my cousin’s girlfriend and other close friends, I offered him some helpful words of advice about relationships, jobs, and college—things I wish I had known at that age.
My conversation reminds me about the importance of relationships with family, friends, and mentors to adolescents’ lives. The relationship skills that boys and girls develop during adolescence can help youth make positive decisions about other aspects of their lives. Knowing how to establish and maintain positive relationships can make a difference as youth make decisions related to romantic relationships, friendships, school, and work.
Education about healthy adolescent romantic relationships has been getting more attention by the federal government. In fact, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of Family Assistance (OFA) recently released a new funding announcement for healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs, and identified at-risk youth as one of their target populations. At-risk youth can include high school dropouts, youth in or aging out of foster care, youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and runaway and homeless youth. Not only do at-risk youth face greater challenges in their transition to adulthood (e.g., lack of support for education, housing, health care, employment), but they often have difficulties establishing and maintaining positive and healthy relationships with friends, adults, and romantic partners.
HMRE programs for youth aim to foster healthy relationships during adolescence and into young adulthood by supporting the development of adolescents’ knowledge, beliefs and skills related to forming healthy relationships and avoiding unhealthy relationships. However, we learned through a recent Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Models and Measures (3M) project that HMRE programs are doing much more than covering these topics related to romantic relationships. In fact, they address a broad range of outcomes and reflect a wide reaching influence on other aspects of adolescent lives, including the social skills and other soft skills that influence other relationships, their well-being, and even their employability.
As part of the 3M project, we developed a dynamic measures spreadsheet that can help the next generation of youth-serving HMRE programs and their evaluators assess program outcomes like healthy relationship knowledge, expectations, and attitudes; partner communication; and social skills. We also developed a data collection tip sheet, which provides guidance on how to collect data from youth and factors programs and evaluators should consider. Similar products are available for another priority population—parents in complex families. 
My cousin had a great time with his girlfriend, friends, and family that night; he was surrounded by people who care about and support him. Without these positive relationships, he may have had a hard time landing that part-time job or getting into college. Hopefully, he can keep those relationships strong well into the future.
 For the purposes of this project, we define complex families as families where couples are in a committed relationship (e.g., married, cohabitating, or in a committed romantic relationship even if they are not living together), they have at least one child together, and one or both parents have children from previous relationships.