Relationship Education for Youth Who Have Faced Adversity

By Mindy Herman-Stahl, Sydney J. Briggs, Lisa Kim, & Elizabeth Wildsmith, Reprinted from MAST

Caring and intimate relationships are critical to individuals’ well-being throughout their lifespan.1,2 Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) programs are designed to build skills that improve relationship quality for adult couples, individuals, co-parents, and youth. Historically, a segment of HMRE programs has focused on relationships for adolescents and young adults (generally ages 15-24). However, in 2020, the Administration for Children and Families launched an initiativea designed to help young people successfully transition to adulthood by promoting their socio-emotional development and strengthening their relationship and other life skills.3 This focus is motivated by research suggesting that intervening during adolescence—before young people’s relationship habits are solidified and they make marital commitments—is an important strategy for promoting healthy adult relationships.4,5 These skills are also transferable to other relationships important for youth development.

Offering extra support on developing healthy relationships is particularly important for youth who have faced interpersonal trauma and adversity (for example, youth aging out of foster care, those who are or have been involved with the juvenile justice system, those who are parents, and those who are or have experienced homelessness); these experiences may place young people at increased risk for poor relational and other outcomes. However, few HMRE programs have been created or adapted to meet the specific needs of youth with these experiences.

This annotated bibliography is intended to provide practitioners and researchers within the HMRE field with useful information that may help them adapt, develop, and test new or refined strategies for working with diverse groups of youth, including those who have faced adversity. It includes literature on (1) outcome evaluations of HMRE programs with youth who have faced adversity, (2) program implementation research with these populations, and (3) descriptive research that provides important contextual information for working with these adolescents and young adults.


This annotated bibliography focused on programs oriented to a wide variety of youth, including those currently or previously involved in the criminal justice system, pregnant and parenting teens, youth in the foster care system, youth transitioning out of the foster care system, refugee youth, youth who have dropped out of school, youth who have experienced trauma, and youth who are experiencing (or have experienced) homelessness. Although many researchers and organizations use the term “vulnerable youth” to describe these populations, we have chosen not to use this term here. As with the use of the term “at-risk” to describe youth, youth are often labeled as “vulnerable” without clear indication of what makes them vulnerable or what they are vulnerable to, as though their vulnerability were an inherent trait.6 However, the factors that make many of the youth studied “vulnerable” are external to them and can change over time. Additionally, the experiences of these youth are diverse. As such, we use “youth who have faced adversity” when referring collectively to the populations of youth included in this annotated bibliography.b

Methodology of Annotated Bibliography

To identify the articles and resources included in this annotated bibliography, we first searched the academic and gray literature (e.g., research reports, working papers, government documents) via Google and Google Scholar using the following terms: “healthy marriage,” “relationship education/enhancement/skills training and vulnerable youth,”c “youth involved in the criminal justice system,” “pregnant and parenting teens,” “youth in the foster care system,” “youth transitioning out of the foster care system,” “youth in the child welfare system,” “refugee youth,” “school drop-outs,” “trauma-exposed youth,” and “homeless youth.” We then examined the reference sections of these initial reviewed resources to identify additional documents. To gather other resources not captured through these channels, we also searched the websites of organizations that focus on youth who have faced adversity, including the Administration for Children and Families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Search Institute, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Dibble Institute.

To maximize relevance to the HMRE field, we limited the articles to (1) outcome evaluation studies, which examined the effects of relationship education on relationships and other skills among youth who have faced adversity; (2) implementation research focused on how relationship education programs were carried out, including barriers and facilitators to program execution and feasibility testing; and (3) descriptive studies providing information about the characteristics of youth who have faced adversity (and their context) that would be relevant for program design, including youths’ relational status and aspirations, knowledge, and need for support.

We included articles on programs if the program addressed relational skills (e.g., communication, conflict resolution, regulating emotions, setting boundaries, asking consent) and/or dating or intimate partner violence. Sometimes the central intent of a program was to promote positive romantic relationships, but we also included resources for which relationship skill-building was a secondary focus (e.g., natural mentoring or wrap-around support for youth transitioning out of foster care). We included studies that addressed relational competence and support beyond romantic relationships (e.g., mentors, case workers) if the skills emphasized were consistent with those taught in HMRE curricula and could transfer in a highly relevant way to intimate partner relationships. Ultimately, 26 studies met our criteria: seven outcome evaluations, four implementation studies, and 15 descriptive studies.


Although the empirical evidence is limited and formative, the articles summarized here provide some important contextual information and promising program approaches to support youth as they develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence needed to build strong, supportive relationships and intimate connections. The majority of studies were based on focus groups and interviews with youth. Youth were interviewed about their knowledge and skills in relational competence; relationship status, stressors, and challenges; dating violence; social support; overall well-being; and relationship and fertility goals and milestones. Descriptive studies also addressed the well-being of youth, either at the time of the study or earlier in their lives, and examined their educational, employment, fertility, and socio-emotional outcomes during the transition to young adulthood. The articles summarized here identified both areas in which we have a depth of information and areas where more research is needed.

Importance of research funding initiatives

We found articles on programs for only three groups of youth included in our search: those transitioning out of foster care, pregnant and parenting teens, and youth involved in the criminal justice system. No articles were found for youth who are homeless or who have experienced homelessness. The research included was aligned with funding allocated for prominent public health concerns (e.g., dating violence, early childbearing and marriage) or social policies (e.g., extended access to services for youth aging out of the foster care system); this highlights the importance of federal government initiatives in addressing urgent social issues and advancing the research.

Need for longitudinal, prospective research

Few of the identified studies have longitudinal, prospective data observing youths’ development of relationship skills and patterns in these relationships over time. The field would benefit by conducting more studies that follow youth over time, starting in early adolescence, to capture information about how and when relationship skills develop, along with how and when to intervene to support the development of healthy relationships.

Lack of rigorous program evaluations

Practitioners seeking to implement evidence-based programs that are supported and validated by rigorous outcome evaluations will be challenged, because no resource met this threshold. Only seven of the 26 studies included in this bibliography explored program outcomes; of those, only three randomly assigned youth to relationship programs or control conditions (the gold standard for program evaluation). All three programs that used randomized control designs considered their work formative and not ready for dissemination beyond pilot testing sites.

Limited information on implementation

There was little research on how to effectively implement relationship education with populations of youth who have faced adversity. One article discussed the challenges of following up with youth who are difficult to track because of their transiency.8 Another study noted the difficulties in engaging these populations, many are whom are overwhelmed with stress and prioritizing their basic needs (e.g., housing, jobs, health care, parenting) over relationship skill-building.9 More research is needed to understand the best ways for programs to recruit, engage, and retain these populations long enough to deliver a sufficient dosage. Additionally, more work is needed to identify innovative and flexible program designs that support youth, most of whom face barriers to program participation such as lack of transportation, child care, and money; additionally, most of these youth are not enrolled in traditional schools and are harder to recruit.

Need for trauma-informed programming

Trauma-informed programs for youth are urgently needed. Most youth described in the reviewed studies had experienced some form of interpersonal trauma, including physical or sexual abuse or neglect; parental absence due to addiction, mental illness, or incarceration; and lack of consistent role modeling and social support due to caretaker or residential instability. Trauma-informed relationship education is needed both to support healing from past trauma and to learn and enhance interpersonal skills and emotional regulation.

Addressing healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors

A substantial proportion of the articles identified focused on preventing or reducing dating or intimate partner violence. Because the populations of youth included in this annotated bibliography are at high-risk for intimate partner violence (IPV),10 the prevalence of such articles is encouraging. Findings from this review suggest that relationship education should provide more than basic skills training (e.g., communication, conflict resolution), but should also help youth identify signs of harmful relationships, seek help, and safely exit dangerous relationships.

Programming for diverse racial and ethnic populations

A continued gap in the field is the lack of articles that discuss programs relevant to specific racial/ethnic and cultural groups. No programs identified in this review were designed for American Indian/Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, or Asian youth. Although some programs studied served a high proportion of Black/African American youth, there was little mention of how HMRE programs could support Black/African American youth facing circumstances such as racial discrimination and structural inequities.

Diverse intervention types

The review of the studies in this annotated bibliography shows that there is no “one size fits all” approach to relationship education programming. Structure, content, and delivery needs were tailored to the particular subpopulation being studied. Relationship education occurred through varied means, including a manualized curriculum, support groups, adult coaching, a standalone program, or services integrated into youth-serving agencies or organizations. Future research should explore which delivery mechanism(s) works best for which subpopulations, and how to design flexible menus of service options to fit youths’ unique needs.


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a Relationships, Education, Advancement, and Development for Youth for Life (READY4Life).back to text

b This term is distinct from “adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)” often examined in research. ACEs describe a specific set of traumatic events (e.g., growing up in a household with violence or substance abuse) that occur before age 18.7 back to text

c We used the key term “vulnerable youth” to search for articles and resources since this term is commonly used in existing literature.back to text