What African American Teen Girls Say About Healthy Romantic Relationships

A young African American couple.

"'If You Don’t Have Honesty in a Relationship, Then There Is No Relationship':  African American Girls’ Characterization of Healthy Dating Relationships, A Qualitative Study" (abstract). Katrina J. Debnam, Donna E. Howard, Mary A. Garza. The Journal of Primary Prevention, Vol. 35, No. 6 (December 2014).

What it’s about: During the Choose Respect Initiative, which promoted healthy romantic relationships among youth, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came up with a list of 12 characteristics of a healthy dating relationship. Using the CDC's list as a guidepost, researchers Katrina J. Debnam, Donna E. Howard and Mary A. Garza wanted to investigate African American girls' thoughts on healthy relationships. The authors interviewed 33 primarily low-income African American 15- to 18-year-old girls from five urban public and private high schools in the Mid-Atlantic.

Why read it: According to anti-dating violence nonprofit Break the Cycle, 1 in 3 students reports experiencing dating abuse, which is associated with a range of other problems, including difficulty at school, drug and alcohol use, sexual assault and teen pregnancy. Greater understanding of how African American girls view good and bad relationships could help family and youth service providers design programs that help these teens identify healthy relationship qualities and behaviors.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Even though they didn't know about the 12 characteristics, the girls in the study described many of the healthy relationship qualities on the CDC's list, including good communication, honesty, trust, respect, compromise, understanding, individuality and self-confidence.

Of these qualities, participants most often mentioned good communication, honesty, trust and respect. The authors note that many schools teach a curriculum that emphasizes these qualities, and that factor may account for the participants’ familiarity with them.

Few participants mentioned problem solving, being a role model, anger control and fighting fair. The authors say these characteristics may not have come up as often because the teens were relatively young and had not experienced long-term relationships.

The girls described some qualities in ways that were different from the CDC definitions:

  • The girls described good communication in the context of being direct and honest. They did not talk about being sensitive to “a partner’s needs to sort out his or her feelings first before talking,” as the CDC does.
  • Participants almost always referred to respect as a component of sexual relations, such as respecting a girl’s body, her physical boundaries and her beliefs about sex. The CDC's definition of respect includes the statement that “each person values who the other is."
  • The girls primarily described trust in relation to cheating. The CDC's definition says, “Partners should choose to trust in each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Most high school relationship education programs, the authors say, primarily focus on talking about unhealthy relationships. While it's important to educate teens about what to avoid, the authors say, assessing how young people define healthy relationship qualities and behaviors is equally vital. Based on their findings in this study, the authors say staff at youth- and family-serving programs may want to 

  • Use role play and other dramatic activities to show teens healthy and unhealthy real-life dating scenarios.
  • Create curricula that focus on the healthy qualities youth may be less familiar with, such as compromise and problem solving.
  • Use the socio-ecological model to frame curricula, as a way to acknowledge that teens’ beliefs and behaviors about relationships are influenced by their parents, other family members, school, friends and social norms.

Additional references: Learn more about teen dating violence and healthy relationships in the NCFY library.

Read about two dating violence prevention phone apps teens can use to stay safe, four online resources for preventing teen dating violence, and a free interactive online toolkit called "Dating Abuse: Tools for Talking to Teens.”

Our Q&A with Paula Parker-Sawyers from the National Campaign to End Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy sheds light on how African American teens, in particular, feel under pressure when it comes to sex and relationships, and how family and youth workers can help.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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