Do you remember the first time you looked at a classmate and your heart pounded just a little bit harder? Many kids go through this in their teen years, but some children can feel romantic interest well before puberty.
Learning how to be in a healthy one-on-one relationship is a normal part of learning how to be an adult. Talking with your child about relationships with their peers at every age sets the foundation for healthy personal connections as they grow. This learning process does not begin with the teen years, but as soon as a child begins noticing other people and how they relate!
Learning about relationships
Children first learn about loving and caring relationships from their families. But they also get messages about relationships from friends, television, and social media. Some of what they learn may not be healthy, so talking with your child about relationships is important. You may find teachable moments in scenes from movies or in song lyrics – carefully selected, of course!
Primary school relationships
Young kids often say they are dating. Some may try to sneak kisses from classmates, but often they do not go anywhere or even hold hands. This is typical, and it is important not to tease children or to dismiss their feelings.
- Special friends. Help your child understand that having feelings for someone else is normal, but that dating is not appropriate until well into adolescence. Explain that just as adults sometimes have people they feel closer to and want to spend more time with, they may also feel more strongly about one friend that another. But this does not mean that they are necessarily in a dating-type relationship. Seeing friendship as a normal interaction between people of any sex is an important lesson.
Adolescent & teen relationships
Adolescent dating may involve physical affection such as kissing, cuddling, and holding hands. There is not a specific age at which dating is best. Every adolescent matures at a different rate and may be ready for a romantic relationship at a different age.
Remember how real it can feel. Some adults may be cynical about or dismiss teenage relationships. They realize that friendships and love at this age can be short-lived. However, this does not mean a teen relationship is less important or less strong than an adult relationship. Friendships and even romantic relationships in the teenage years are just as real, and perhaps as painful, as relationships at any other point in life.
Be ready to talk. Don't be surprised if your child, who always told you everything, starts to clam up and go silent. It is a natural process for adolescents to put family relationships in the back seat, socially, as they learn to develop their friendships. Your role has changed from main character to supporting cast. But your teen needs your support and advice as they navigate the ups and downs of their relationships.
How to start talking about romantic relationships
Talking about relationships with teens can be a minefield! Your teen may feel bad about not having dated or may even have felt rejected by someone. So, bringing up the topic may have the opposite effect you intend.
- Tread lightly & listen. Instead, to open the topic, you might begin by asking, “Are any of your friends dating?" After that, it is less important what you say, than that you listen carefully. If your teen says absolutely nothing, then it might be best to wait and ask again a few weeks later. Pushing for information can be a mistake.
Here are some other ways to encourage positive communication with teens:
Try not to react. If your teen shares a bit of information, try to listen without judgement or reaction. Simply hear what they are saying and then ask a question about it without offering your opinion.
Don't participate in the drama. If your teen shares a concern, create a safe space with a positive, problem-solving attitude. This helps avoid making your teen feel it is an overwhelming problem. Be a calm voice of reason.
Don't overly empathize. Maintain a reasonable distance from the ups and downs of teenage life. This means if your daughter has a fight with her boyfriend, you sympathize with her feelings, but take the long view.
Dating. Keep in mind that most adolescents (even older adolescents) have never had a dating relationship. Among 15- to 17-year-olds, most (66%) are not and never have been in a romantic relationship.
Sex. Despite a lot of peer pressure, more than 50% of teens wait until after high school to have sex. Keep in mind that you are the best person to teach your teen about relationships, love, commitment. What teens learn about sex may help influence their future choices and health. For instance, if your teen chooses to abstain from sex, they avoid the risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. If your teen is sexually active, proper use of
birth control can help reduce these risks.
Warning signs your teen is in an unhealthy relationship
Although it is a good idea to let your teen learn through experience, it is important to know when to step in. Some relationships are so unhealthy that they may be dangerous to your teen. Here are some signs you may need to step in and have a serious conversation with your teen, welcome or not:
Signs of extremely controlling behavior or extreme jealousy
Isolation from friends and family
Unexplained or poorly explained bruises or injuries
Loss of interest in activities that your teen previously enjoyed
Sudden change in behavior
Drop in grades
Extreme changes in personality, especially around their partner
A big age difference between partners
Keep in mind that you and your teen may not always agree on what's best. Though you may not control over your child's love life, you can be supportive through the joys and heartbreaks that will happen along the way.