Children and young people need lessons in building strong relationships to counteract negative role models and “Disneyfied” portrayals of love, experts say

young people in classroom

Children should get lessons in school on how to build strong relationships

Children should get lessons in school on how to build strong relationships to counteract negative role models and any “Disneyfied” portrayals of love they are exposed to, experts have said.

Children should get lessons in school on how to build strong relationships to counteract negative role models and any “Disneyfied” portrayals of love they are exposed to, experts have said.

Learning how to build and sustain a strong partnership should be an integral part of work in schools to promote good health and wellbeing, according to a new study.

Relationship distress is associated with public health problems such as alcohol misuse, obesity, poor mental health, and child poverty.

Children should learn how relationships require work, how to manage expectations and that ‘good’ relationships do not just happen.

Young people who took part in a new study said relationship education would help them to develop better skills to manage communication and conflict. They said they would welcome lessons on how to manage different stages in relationships, how to sustain happy relationships, and how to end relationships that could not be sustained, and cope with the aftermath.

The interdisciplinary research, by Simon Benham-Clarke,Jan Ewing, Anne Barlow and Tamsin Newlove-Delgado from the University of Exeter, was carried out as part of the Beacon project, funded by the university’s Wellcome Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Health.

Experts conducted focus groups with 24 young people from the South West aged between 14 and 18 and ten relationship professionals. All recognised the importance of schools supporting young people to build healthy relationships.

Simon Benham-Clarke said: “Our research shows schools need improved support to run relationships education, including specialist expertise and resources, and guidance on signposting pupils to external sources of help. Positive relationship behaviours should be modelled, integrated and built on throughout curriculums nationally and reflected in a school’s ethos.”

“Those we surveyed highlighted the importance of teaching skills such as relating, communication, empathy, respect, conflict resolution and repair and ending relationships kindly and safely.”

Dr Newlove-Delgado said: “Young people saw schools as offering an unbiased and alternative perspective on relationships, particularly for those who might have more challenging backgrounds, however a desire was expressed for a greater focus in schools on how relationships ‘work’ rather than on sex education.”

“Participants also felt that talking about family and peer relationships should come first, building up to later discussions about romantic relationships in later years at school, with some highlighting links between patterns of relationship behaviour.”

“Some young people were concerned about whether education about romantic relationships could put people of their age under pressure if it were too early.”

Professor Barlow said: “Those we surveyed felt schools could improve relationship outcomes for pupils in other ways beyond the relationship education lesson, such as having someone to talk to, in person and in private. Others wanted signposting and information about sources of help outside the school setting.”

Dr Ewing said “While young people’s families were seen as the primary source of learning about healthy relationships, there was clear support for schools’ role to augment this, as not all families exhibit healthy relationships. Relationship professionals thought that there were key transition moments in life, getting married or having a baby, where people are receptive to learning relationship skills, but that schools had a critical role in teaching and embedding critical skills around initiating and maintaining a healthy relationship.”

There was strong support for relationships education to start early, preferably in primary schools, exploring what a healthy friendship and relating well to others looks like before moving onto romantic relationships, which would give young people vital life skills. Starting early, in primary schools and with counselling support where needed, was thought to be particularly important for young people whose parents were locked in conflict.