“Remember, it’s Vegas rules, guys. What happens here, stays here,” says Alexander Chan to a room full of giggling high school teenagers as he goes over the ground rules for a workshop all about healthy relationships.
Chan’s background is in marriage and family therapy. Now he’s an educator with 4-H in Prince George’s County, Md., where he leads a youth development program, through University of Maryland Extension, to help local teens understand and cultivate positive romantic partnerships.
In his experience working with young people across Maryland, he says he’s come to understand that they see a myriad of relationships. His goal with the healthy relationships workshop is to create a space for teens to learn good habits and to ask those questions that can sometimes be embarrassing.
Chan uses games to help explain boundaries and warning signs. In one, he has the group circle around and play a game called “red flag, white flag” where he describes a romantic scenario to the kids and they hold up a red flag to signal an immediate breakup sign, or a white flag for situations that can be talked out.
The workshop is delivered in stages, so kids can learn the importance of knowing their own identity before getting into a serious romantic relationship. From there they learn what it takes to build a relationship. And finally, the best ways to end a relationship.
“What are good relationships built on?” Chan asks the room as he draws a giant pyramid on an easel. It looks a bit like a food pyramid with levels representing the different layers of a relationship. The room erupts as the teens yell out words like loyalty, respect, and communication.
Desha Jenkins, one of the participants, believes it’s important for her peers to be exposed to this type of dialogue in high school. She’s seen her friends go in and out of short relationships, not understanding what makes a good one work.
“Communication and trust are important. If you don’t have communication, you don’t have anything,” says Jenkins.
The curriculum also encourages careful decision-making in picking romantic partners and teaching young people who they associate with can be a reflection of who they are.
So, why 4-H?
4-H, yes, is primarily known as the farming club in high school, so it may seem like a strange fit, but the four H’s in the name stand for: head, heart, hands and health.
The focus on health in 4-H has changed over the years as the organization is trying to meet the evolving need of teens in their program says Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of National 4-H Council.
4-H approaches teen health by focusing on nutrition, physical activity and emotional well-being.
“Our goal is to give kids the confidence and courage to navigate challenges they find at school and in their everyday lives,” adds Sirangelo.
Do programs like this one really work?
Chan finds that those in the highest need categories — low income and minority groups — benefit the most from these types of relationship education programs.
He stresses to teens that bad relationships can hurt them physically and mentally. Unhealthy relationships can promote things like obesity and depression, but youth who participate in relationship education programs can show improvements in conflict management and identifying unhealthy patterns.
Peggy Giordano, sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, has researched the connection between adolescent academic performance and dating and says it’s important that young people make good decisions about their relationships. That being in a healthy relationship, with the right people, can actually help students’ academic performance.
“Conflict is pervasive when teens have romantic relationships,” says Giordano. She finds that when young people are given the right tools, they have the ability to identify unhealthy relationship signs as they mature.
The 4-H program has been around for about a year. In that time, Chan says the majority of participants report feeling more confident after the workshop was over and that they felt they could share their relationship needs with their partners.
As Chan wraps up for the day, one girl pulls him aside to ask him how she can start a career in leading relationship education programs like this one. Chan says that happens a lot after he finishes working with the teens.
“Some adults may write it off as puppy love,” says Chan. “But no, relationships go awry, they hurt and some of these teens really struggle.”
And this November, 4-H plans to introduce the program to LGBTQ freshmen at the University of Maryland. Lessons would center around relationship issues that affect young LGBTQ students, helping them navigate the nuances of love while in college.