Discussing Teen Romance

Do you dismiss your teens and tweens’ romances as fleeting and insignificant? Although your children’s crushes might indeed be short-lived, new research suggests it behooves parents to pay attention and talk about it. It turns out that young crushes and romantic attachments are a powerful factor in kids’ development. Here’s the surprising news: Although your kids may seem not to value your input on this subject, it is valuable. According to research, parent-teen conversations about romance actually help young people to develop healthier relationships later on. For example, making yourself available to discuss dating can help your kids to form warmer, more positive relationships that are freer of tension and fighting. One study showed that when parents aren’t involved in giving advice, children’s later relationships are less affectionate and supportive and more conflictual. But this doesn’t mean you should say whatever thoughts, judgments, and advice pop into your mind. Here is what research findings, clinical knowledge, and personal experience suggest works best:

Be Prepared
Rather than thinking (aka hoping) you won’t have to deal with these issues until senior prom, at the earliest, it’s wise to get mentally prepared for the possibility that your son or daughter’s romantic interests might be awakened much earlier. It’s not all that uncommon for fourth or fifth graders to say they have a girlfriend or boyfriend. What that means, of course, may simply be that for a few days or so they’ve formed a crush, giggle around each other, or exchange messages.
But the way you react to your kids’ first romantic interests, whenever they occur, sets the stage for how you will treat this subject—and shapes how willing they will be to talk about their romances in the future, when they’re developing more serious relationships and even choosing life partners. How can you prepare? The number one skill you can perfect is being a good listener. Calmly and non-reactively express interest in understanding your teen’s feelings. Judiciously make observations, but refrain from judging and give advice only when specifically asked. (If you’re bursting to say something you consider vital, try asking, “Are you open to hearing what I’m thinking?”)
Remember, It’s 2014
To say times are different is an understatement. When it comes to dating, not much is the same as it was when you were growing up. This makes it that much harder to relate to the culture in which young people are developing notions of themselves as appealing, sexual beings—and acting upon them. It also makes it challenging to offer relevant advice. Although parenting a 21st century teen always requires being aware of the hopes and expectations that spring from your own past, it’s especially important in this area. Looking back, dating typically evokes powerful memories and feelings, both good and bad. Make decisions based not on what things were like when you had your first boyfriend or girlfriend, but on what your kids are going through now, in this day and age.

The terms used these days are also unfamiliar—even the word dating is passé—and truly confusing. Kids may go out, hang out, or see someone, which could mean anything from sending Facebook messages or Instagram photos to sitting at the same cafeteria table to having an intense relationship with one-on-one dates and sexual activity. And of course, these days sexual activity doesn’t necessarily mean there is dating; some teens engage in sexual activities without emotional intimacy—or any relationship at all. Hooking up—the words that make many parents cringe—can mean anything from kissing to oral sex to intercourse and anything in between. So before you react to what your teen or tween tells you, ask for clarification: “What do you mean by ___ (whatever term confuses you)?”

Set Sensible Guidelines
Rather than specifying a certain age as the minimum requirement for one-on-one dating, consider each situation. A 13-year-old who asks to go to a local movie with a group of middle school classmates, one of whom she has a crush on, presents a vastly different situation from a 13 year old who’s been asked out on a date by the 16-year-old brother of one of her best friends. And, that same 13-year-old might be more mature and better able to handle a dating situation than her 15-year-old sister or brother.
So how can you decide if your teen is ready to date? I recommend assessing if teens are:

• at least 15
• trustworthy, reliable, and responsible
• capable of sizing up social situations
• respectful of themselves and others
• able to be assertive, ask for what they need, and set limits
• unlikely to use substances
• capable of resisting pressure
• able to communicate the need for help

When They Start Dating
Besides providing factual information about dating and sex, discussions should help teens clarify, in the short run, which activities and situations would be fun and comfortable for them. To boost their ability to plan, think ahead, and solve problems, pose questions such as, “How would you handle it if your date offers you alcohol/wants to take you to a party/won’t drive you home?” Always convey to teens that they should trust their instincts and leave situations that don’t feel right—even when they’re unsure why they feel uncomfortable. Give them a personal 911 code to text you—anytime, anywhere, no questions asked—to escape. Conversations can also address more long-term issues such as what they are looking for in relationships and what they value in romantic partners.

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