It makes all parents nervous, to put it mildly, but adolescent dating and love is undeniable and universal. Learn how to help your teen (and yourself) through this time of transition.
Remember what it felt like when you were a teen and in love for the first time? Did you get butterflies in your stomach every time that special someone came around? Find yourself doodling his or her name on your notebook? Did you feel it was the best feeling in the world and never wanted it to end?
Now think about your teen in love. Chances are, the warm feeling you just had thinking about your first love have now evaporated! As a parent, it’s only natural to wish you could prevent your teen from having a relationship, get started dating, or even having an innocent crush until they’re well into their mid-twenties. However, the fact is, once kids approach adolescence and puberty, most become interested in dating. Here’s how to help your teen (and yourself) through this complicated thing called teen love.
Take It Seriously
One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make when it comes to teen love is to dismiss it. “During adolescence kids are going through a lot of changes, and part of that is developing relationships with other people and feelings in intimate relationships,” says Paula Braverman, M.D., FAAP, an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Is teen love real? “Yes, it’s real and is part of the normal developmental process teens go through as they become adults,” says Dr. Braverman, a member of the AAP’s Committee on Adolescence.
Telling your teen it’s only puppy love or hormones running wild will shut down communication because it tells your teen that you don’t understand or respect the strong emotions of it. Also, “anytime you dismiss something, you make it more attractive, instead of less attractive,” says Michelle S. Barratt, M.D., MPH, FAAP, a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Texas–Houston Medical Center. So, telling your teenager the relationship isn’t real or won’t work may cause her to try harder to make it work (even if it’s an unhealthy relationship) just to prove you wrong.
Talk It and Walk It
Having ongoing conversations about dating and relationships with your teen is a must. “The goal is to provide an environment in which teens feel they can communicate safely with their parents and in which parents can convey their values and establish boundaries,” Dr. Braverman says.
She says some of the topics to discuss with teens are: when your teen can date, whether dates have to be group dates or if one-on-one dates are allowed, curfew, your expectations of the teen and partner he/she chooses, your family’s stance on teen sex, information on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
All the talking in the world won’t mean a thing if you don’t back it up. What you do in your own relationship(s) helps your teen learn how to behave and what to expect in relationships.
If your teenager witnesses you being abused or abusive to a partner, he or she is likely to follow in your footsteps. If your child sees you in a relationship with no affection, the affection may be lacking in his future relationships. If you want your teen to have healthy relationships, you must have healthy relationships for them to follow.
Know When (and When Not) to “Butt in”
“A lot of times parents are very picky about who they think is good enough for their daughter or son,” Dr. Barratt says. Before writing someone off, give your teen’s date a chance. “Meet and get to know the person, learn their positives, and learn what it is your teen sees in them that’s positive,” Dr. Barratt says. You may be surprised!
If you still don’t like this individual and it’s for superficial reasons (your son’s girlfriend seems quiet and boring, or the guy your daughter is swooning over has spiky hair), just get over it. “You aren’t the one who has to be in the relationship,” Dr. Barratt reminds.
The same goes for unsolicited advice or involving yourself in your child’s relationship problems. While it’s a parent’s natural instincts to want to protect a child from any pain or disappointment, you can’t rush in to solve any small relationship issue your teen has. “You just have to make sure your teen is making healthy and respectful choices, whether they’re for themselves or their partner,” says Dr. Barratt, who is also a member of the AAP’s Committee on Adolescence.
If your teen’s relationship does seem unhealthy, that’s when you need to step in. Because teens aren’t fully developed emotionally, they may sometimes not recognize signs of an unhealthy relationship — or if they do, they are unsure of how to handle it, Dr. Braverman says. If you see signs that the relationship is unhealthy, she suggests you talk with your teen about your concerns. If your concerns are valid, offer your support and help your teen end the relationship. If your teen doesn’t want to end it and you feel he or she is in danger, forbidding your teen from seeing the person may be the only option. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances of the relationship, your teen may need counseling.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
Although the teen dating years are usually stressful for both parents and teens, the good news is with practice (and guidance), most teens learn to navigate the tricky world of love and relationships. So, relax! One day your grown-up teen may be giving you love advice!
Signs of an Unhealthy Teen Relationship
- One of the teens is very controlling
- Extreme jealousy
- Isolation from friends and family
- Bruises and/or injuries that can’t be easily explained
- Loss of interest in activities the teen previously enjoyed
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Decrease in academic performance or grades
- Extreme changes in the teen’s personality around the partner
- Frequent arguments
- A big age difference between the partners
This article was featured in Healthy Children Magazine. To view the full issue, click here.