Developing Relationship Intelligence in Teens

by Collett Smart
Developing Relationship Intelligence

Photo by Tim Mossholder

One thing that continually strikes me about the young people I work with is that they really do want to become good men and women who have rich, meaningful relationships. They are just sometimes unsure how to go about it. They need our support and guidance.


We are made for relationships

What young people everywhere have in common is the need for love – in some ways, they crave it as much as (or even more than) basic needs like food. I believe we are made for relationships. In my opinion, developing Relationship Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence are the most vital skills we can teach our children. Above IQ  (although I am not suggesting we pull our kids out of school!).

In my book, I mention the 80-year landmark study on men’s relationships and wellness, which supports this view. It revealed that early fame, wealth and high achievement don’t bring happiness. The study concluded that social connections are really good for us.

Basically, people who are more connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, physically healthier and live longer. While lonely people are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. Other studies also show that a lack of social connection is more detrimental to health than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure. In general, people who feel more connected to others have a higher sense of self-worth, possess greater empathy, and are more trusting and cooperative.

In his TED Talk based on the above study, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger concludes,

‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.’

Hence, if relationships are good for their health, bring lasting meaning and also develop resilience, perhaps it is time we focused more of our attention on teaching our young people about RI – Relationship Intelligence.

It is important to note that it is not the number of friends your teen has. It also doesn’t matter whether they are in a romantic relationship or not. What matters is the quality of their close relationships.


My two Relationship Intelligence (RI) categories

I believe there are two broad categories of Relationship Intelligence. These are;

  1.  a relationship with the self (not as self-centred as it sounds). i.e. Knowing you are love-WORTHY.  
  2.  our relationships with others. i.e. Knowing how to be love-ABLE. 

Essentially, the former encourages self-respect and the latter develops an ‘other-respect’.


I don’t mean that we need to name the two categories every time we have a conversation with our teenagers. They are more a frame of reference, to keep in our minds as we raise Relationally Intelligent teens. i.e. If we frame our RI conversations in terms of these two categories, it becomes easier for us to formulate our own thoughts and to communicate our family values. It can help us think about how we treat our teenagers, how to talk about sibling disagreements and friendship issues. When tricky topics (like p*rnography or bullying) are part of the Relationship Intelligence dialogue, it can make talking about them seem a little easier.

The two categories help us to think about the ‘why’ behind the values or behaviours we teach our teens.


In the day-to-day

For teens to build healthy relationships requires the adults in their lives to make use of effective communication skills and age-appropriate boundaries.

Love-WORTHY teens

This is about teaching teens to understand that they are worthy of love. It is not about arrogance or conceit. It’s learning that they are enough. Just as they are. Loved. Unconditionally.

When teens learn this they begin to practise self-compassion and self-care. Teens develop the courage to speak up when they are not treated with dignity. Love-WORTHY teens learn to look after their minds and bodies by; getting adequate sleep, exercising and eating well (they may need a little – ahem firm – nudge on some of these still). And their positive self-talk improves.


Our teens develop a sense of self-WORTH when we:

  • encourage them to grow skills through; doing chores, engaging in extracurricular activities, part-time jobs or completing school tasks
  • help them to find a group where they can feel they belong (sport, art, drama, music, youth groups, part-time jobs can help with this)
  • allow them to believe they have a voice, by listening to their ideas and engaging in respectful arguments or debates
  • have high but reasonable expectations of them
  • let them earn some independence and try things on their own
  • allow them to fail and then learn that it has not crushed them
  • acknowledge their emotions without belittling or dismissing them
  • love them unconditionally, even when they mess up – “I know you have to face the consequences for X, but I am always here for you and nothing will change my love for you.” or “I don’t love you any less because you failed your Maths test.”
  • apologise to our teens when we mess up (this is modelling)
  • tell them when we are proud of and notice their developing character – “I noticed how kind you were to your sister earlier. You are growing into such a wonderful man.”
  • communicate, in every way we can, that they are ‘enough’ to us! Just the way they are. They don’t need to earn our love.


Love-ABLE teens

Teaching teens that they need to also be love-ABLE instils in them a recognition of the worth of others. They realise that others are also deserving of compassion and kindness. Love-ABLE teens learn that their choices have an impact on other people. Which means, at times, they will have to experience a consequence for hurting others.  Love-ABLE teens change their behaviour when they realise that their actions might negatively affect another person. They are also better equipped to speak out when they see others being mistreated.


Our teens develop a sense that they are love-ABLE when:

  • they have chores to do (yes it really does make a difference to character). Even when they don’t feel like doing them
  • they are expected to attend a match, because they committed to the team, even though going to a movie seems more fun
  • facing consequences for behaviour that affects someone else
  • we expect our teens to take some action to change poor behaviour
  • they sacrifice something they really wanted to do, for someone else’s happiness. e.g. Attend a siblings basketball final instead of going to the beach with a friend)
  • again – we allow them to believe they have a voice. e.g. When they want to stand up for injustice
  • they engage in volunteer activities (coaching a younger team, taking out a neighbour’s bin, leading a youth group)
  • teens practice gratitude (verbally, in writing or via text message/email ). e.g. Thanking a coach, a family member or teacher for their time or effort.
  • apologising or making right
  • we call out the times we notice their kindness to others
  • parents or teachers thank them for something they have done or said
  • (adults don’t expect all of these at once)


It’s important to find a balance between these two categories, because if we teach our children to be only love- ABLE, they become vulnerable to abuse and exploitation through others’ selfishness. And if we teach them to only to think they are love-WORTHY, they are likely to develop self-centred and narcissistic-type thinking.

We are in this for the long haul

They watch us. How we respond to their other parent or their siblings. How we interact with the lady at the grocery store. What we say about Grandpa. If we smile and greet the person with a disability. Whether we can apologise and make right, when we’ve messed up in any of the above. They watch us.

Connection matters

Teens learn relationship values from the adults they spend the most time with. In both the day-to-day joys and the struggles. Naturally, forging connections with teens is the same as for anyone – they need our TIME. This is not a new secret in terms of how to relate to children. Spending time with and meeting teens where they are at is crucial to their healthy development. Despite what we hear about teenagers, even when they push us away, they need our time just as much as they did when they were 5 years old. Just in different ways.

There are positive associations for teens who spend an average of six hours a week engaged in family time with their parents. The more time teens spend in family time – such as during meals, having a parent watching them play sport, driving to guitar lessons, attending Grandma’s birthday, popping up to the shop together, on holidays, chatting after a party – the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky or illegal behaviour. (Note: I didn’t say 6 hours of eyeball to eyeball time – so please breathe easy).

To encourage you – many parents (even working parents) are spending more time with their children than in past generations.

One last thought

If it is true, that relationships are good for their health, bring lasting meaning and also develop resilience, then let’s think of ways we can develop Relationship Intelligence in our teens’ lives. It will look different in your family and in mine, because our relationships are different. That’s the messiness, the beauty and the mystery of it all.


Here is my podcast on this topic:

Please support or encourage a parent, by sharing this article with them.



Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. The heart of Collett’s work is to support and bring Hope to parents of tweens and teens. She lives with her husband and 3 children in Sydney, Australia. Find out more at




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