Increasing Youths’ Relationship Confidence with Relationship Education

By McKell Jorgensen and Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom Line First:  Youth relationship education aims to build youths skills to form and sustain healthy romantic relationships. A new study provides more evidence that these kinds of programs can be effective at helping youth develop more confidence in their abilities to form and sustain healthy relationships. The study also looks at who benefits the most.

Romantic relationships can be hard, and working through problems with a romantic partner takes time and effort and smarts. Mistakes are common which lead to relationship problems. Some relationship education (RE) scholars have argued that we should start earlier, educating youth and young adults before they enter serious relationships to avoid common mistakes and prevent problems before they can start to form. There is some evidence that RE programs meant to arm youth and young adults with knowledge prior to experiencing serious romantic relationships can have a positive impact on youth? [1]

Now, more data has arrived to support this idea. In a recent study,[2] researchers evaluated the Love U2: Relationship Smarts Plus program given to about 1,000 youth in many different settings. The 13 lessons focused on understanding healthy relationships, dating, communication, conflict management skills, and future relationship planning. Before and after participating in the program, the researchers measured youths’ confidence in forming romantic relationships and applying relationship skills such as communication and conflict resolution. This is an important target of change for these youth prevention programs. Because they did not have a control or comparison group, they couldn’t make a strong conclusion about whether Love U2 actually caused positive change, but they could examine for whom the program was more effective and what aspects of the program seemed to improve effectiveness.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • It worked . . . The program increased youths’ confidence in their abilities to form and flourish in romantic relationships. (Or, if you’d like the technical term for confidence, “romantic relationship self-efficacy.”)
  • . . . For some more than others . . . The program impacted certain groups of youths more than others. Females, African American males, and those who already had some negative dating experiences experienced a greater increase in relationship self-efficacy than other participants.
  • . . . And, after school was best. After-school programs worked better than in-school programs. Also, classes offered daily or weekly (rather than monthly) worked best.

Here are some implications of these findings:

  • Keep going. This study lends support to past research that RE for youth does have an impact and is important. We need to continue with this kind of work and ideally step it up. RE programs can give youth more knowledge about healthy romantic relationships and increase their sense that they can build and maintain one, preventing potential problems before the relationship has even started.
  • Reconsider providing these programs during school hours. Setting and timing of these programs appear to be important. Youth who participate voluntarily in after-school programs benefit more than “captive” students participating as a part of their regular school day, however. And avoid stringing out the lessons over months; it seems that shorter time intervals between lessons is better, perhaps making it easier to absorb and retain the curriculum.
  • Target youth with negative dating experiences. Young people in different circumstances are affected to varying degrees. One group that seems important to target is youth who have already gone through some unhealthy relationships; they seem to be especially primed to learn. Relationship educators may want to use this as a way to recruit participants to their programs.

Endnotes:

[1] David M. Simpson, Nathan D. Leonhardt, and Alan J. Hawkins.  “Learning About Love:  A Meta-Analytic Study of Individually-Oriented Relationship Education Programs for Adolescents and Emerging Adults.”  Journal of Youth and Adolescence 47, no. 3 (2018):  477-489.

[2] Ted G. Futris, Tara E. Sutton, and Jenee C. Duncan.  “Factors Associated with Romantic Relationship Self-Efficacy Following Youth-Focused Relationship Education.”  Journal of Family Relations 66, no. 5 (2017):  777-793.