Remember when you first had a girl or boyfriend?
If you were like most teens, you constantly thought about that person and wanted to be with them. Your days were spent obsessing about when you could talk next, and kiss next. You probably tied up the phone line. (Remember back in the days when there was only such a thing as a ‘home phone’? And your siblings would pick up the other handset and listen in on your conversations!)
The relationship was all-consuming.
Today your smitten teen has all of the same desires to be connected with their crush, but with the added possibilities that come with social media, mobile phones, and almost endless opportunities for communicating with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Instant photos through instagram and snapchat, instant messaging through skype, facebook, or text, plus old-fashioned contact via the phone or in person.
Teens’ relationships today can be even more consuming than ours were – with the added accessibility of the other person making the relationship both more private and more public simultaneously, as well as more intimate – and potentially more intense.
In that perfect world where you get everything right as a parent, conversations about relationships, dating, and intimacy need to start as early as possible (probably around the age of eight years). By this time, many children have already had their first crush, but they’re still a long way off having a deep emotional relationship with someone.
These conversations need to happen if we are to educate our children about how to have healthy relationships. Regardless of how old your child is, chat with them about things like;
- How old you both think someone should be before they start dating
- Whether dating should be exclusive or whether dating should be more about getting to know people
- What people do on dates – and what they don’t do
- What age is appropriate to have a boy/girlfriend (note, just because you date someone doesn’t mean you have to be their boy/girlfriend)
- The purpose of dating
- Your expectations for how they’ll behave when dating
- The relationship between trust and intimacy (both emotional and physical), and the risks that are part of the deal
Once your children are “in” a relationship, they’ll often be on cloud nine. Things are wonderful for everyone at this point. But they don’t always stay that way.
- Some parents become concerned that their child is letting go of everything else that matters (school, family, sleep) for their boy/girlfriend
- Some teens become completely introverted, obsessive, or depressed (or all three)
- Conflict can arise when teens get involved in intimate activities with their boy/girlfriend that clash with parent’s standards.
Some of these challenges can be resolved by being prepared ahead of time and discussing expectations together. When our children know what we expect, they are more likely to conform to it (so long as we don’t get so harsh that we make them want to rebel). The following tips can also be useful in helping teens balance their relationship with the rest of their lives:
- Have regular ‘check-ins’ to make sure things are going well in other areas of your kids’ lives.
- Talk about the boy/girlfriend and invite your child to share what they will about the relationship (this can often be too personal, but some basic conversation can be helpful).
- Avoid mocking the relationship. It may seem like puppy love to you, but your teenager is experiencing these emotions for the first time – and they’re real for your teen. Additionally, this relationship is providing important learning experiences, so instead of mocking, see how you can use it as a learning tool.
- Set goals with your teen so she or he has something else to focus on beside the relationship. If the goals start to falter, it can provide a handy reality check for discussion about the relationship
- Give leeway where you can. Remember what things were like when you were in love as a teen.
- Give regular reminders about limits and expectations.
It is almost inevitable. While some high-school sweethearts stay together, most don’t. The breakup is bound to happen, and when it does, our kids need us to be there to help.
What your children don’t need:
Sometimes we’ll be delighted that a relationship has ended. We try to hide it, but we end up saying something like,
“That kid was no good. In a few weeks you’ll be glad it’s over.”
Or we simply get annoyed at our children for being emotional
“Get over yourself. You’re blowing it out of proportion. Stop being such a sook about it.”
It can be natural for us, as parents, to try and wave away the pain our broken-hearted teen is feeling in the hope that it will help. We say things like:
“Don’t worry. You’ll get over him/her.”
“Plenty more fish in the sea.”
“Oh come on, it’s not that bad. You don’t really know what real love is yet. That was just puppy love.”
But it doesn’t help. It only re-emphasises that we don’t understand what life is like for them.
What your children do need
When the relationship is over your teenager will probably not want to talk with you about it. To them, you wouldn’t understand what they’re going through. The breakup is unique and exquisitely painful in ways a parent wouldn’t comprehend.
Try these ideas:
- Invite them to chat with you if they feel like it. Perhaps they’ll come out for a hot chocolate or ice cream with you – or just go for a walk. Keep them close.
- Simply be available. It is during these difficult times that the quality of your relationship with your teenager will be a significant influence on their wellbeing and resilience.
- Watch a movie together. In fact, do anything together.
- Recognise the emotions they are feeling and reassure them that it’s normal. Label the emotion, validate it, and ask how you can help.
- Give them a little bit of slack in relation to chores and commitments. When you’re depressed, youprobably don’t want to do anything either.
These relationships are a part of growing up. We know this at a basic level, but it’s worth emphasising because it can be so challenging when our teens fall in love, and when their world comes crashing down. They teach our children how to have healthy, positive relationships. The quality of the relationship you have with your teen will help you both navigate the good and the bad of teen relationships and breakups.