Red and Green Flags in Teen Relationships

By Kailani Akana Murphy, LCSW

Adolescence comes with a sometimes overwhelming amount of changes – both for the adolescent and for their families. One of the biggest changes is in social relationships and learning how to navigate them. How an adolescent navigates this developmental stage sets up their mental health outcomes later in life – and learning how to identify Red Flags and Green Flags while still developing their sense of identity and self will help set them up for better mental health outcomes as adults. 

Red Flags and Green Flags have been used to describe different categories of behaviors in relationships for a long time – be it romantic relationships, friendships, or workplace relationships. And the definitions are about as straightforward as they come: a Red Flag indicates a potentially unhealthy or problematic behavior, while a Green Flag is a positive indicator of a healthy and supportive relationship. Most Green Flags can be role-modeled in the parent-child relationship, which can lead to a greater chance of those behaviors being mirrored in a teen’s social relationships. For the purposes of this post we’ll focus on teen romantic relationships, using these relationship building blocks to start:

Boundaries and Communication

Boundaries are the foundations of our relationships and communication is a key factor in creating and respecting our own boundaries and those of others. A lack of respect for the boundaries of others is a Red Flag, and though it may seem obvious it can sometimes be hard to identify. A teen might think ‘they just care about me so much’ when they tell you that their partner asked for their daily schedule and has been showing up unexpectedly outside of their classrooms, but trying to insert themselves into all facets of your teen’s life is a Red Flag. If your teen expresses that they’ve tried to create space or reinforce a boundary and their partner ignores the boundary or makes them feel guilty, that is a Red Flag. And they do deserve being cared for but part of caring for someone is respecting the boundaries they set, which is a Green Flag. When someone acknowledges boundaries and when they might have overstepped, they are showing that they respect and care about the relationship. That is paired with open and honest communication, and being able to respect each other’s feelings starts with communicating what those feelings are with the intent to learn more. 

Trust and Identity

During this developmental stage teens are learning to trust themselves and others. Dishonesty with a partner or lack of trust with a lack of willingness to communicate is a Red Flag that can indicate more problematic and unhealthy behaviors down the line. If their partner says that they trust them ‘but not everyone else’ referring to friends and family, that is a form of manipulation in order to create isolation from those other major support systems. A healthy relationship is built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect, both major Green Flags. A relationship should be a Venn diagram – each side maintaining their own individuality and also supporting each other’s personal growth and goals, and in the middle are shared goals and interests. A Green Flag is a partner accepting your teen for who they are as well as who they are not; a Red Flag is someone pushing to change your teen or who changes interests and goals to exactly mirror theirs.


Strong support systems are major indicators of better mental health outcomes later on in life, and it is often through these support systems that we are able to learn how to trust ourselves and others around us. If someone shows a disregard for their feelings or general well-being those are Red Flags in and of themselves, however they can also be emblematic of greater issues that will arise further down the road. Green Flags indicating that someone is supportive and will be additive to their support system are empathy and understanding – and if they can’t empathize, then they are trying to listen so they can sympathize. Someone showing a willingness to learn how to support is more likely to be invested in fostering feelings of security and safety.

It’s important to remember that being a teen means learning without the training wheels but remembering that the support system is still close by – and asking for help when needed. Teen relationships are an invaluable part of adolescent development, providing opportunities for growth, learning and connection. Role-modeling and establishing healthy boundaries and communication in your parent-child relationship can provide the foundation for positive and fulfilling relationships and experiences that will set the stage for better mental health outcomes as they continue to grow. And if you, or your teen, find yourself struggling to cope with violations in boundaries or communication, professional support to assess and address these issues is available.