There are a few milestones that every teen parent simultaneously looks forward to and dreads: the first time their teen drives away, the first time a college application lands in their mailbox, and the first time their teen brings home a romantic interest.
Any of those milestones are potential battlegrounds, but none have inspired as many movies, books, and legends as that first teen relationship. (Romeo and Juliet, anyone?) It doesn’t have to be a battle, though. If done with thoughtfulness, parents can find themselves in the role of trusted and supportive voice in the noise.
The question is, how? How do you navigate the space between protecting your teen and letting them grow? How do know whether your teen is ready to take that next step into adulthood, and, if they are ready, what can you do to support them?
Most parents of teenagers were themselves teenagers in the late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, notes Dr. Andrew P. Smiler, Ph.D., author of “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy, which means they (we) were teenagers before social media and “hook up” culture changed the dating landscape.
For today’s teenagers, the line between dating and hanging out is murkier, explains Dr. Smiler. “For today’s teens, there can be kissing and a whole range of sexual activity, including sex for older teens, before they are really dating. Teens might say ‘I’m talking to so-and-so’ but officially being a couple, officially dating, tends to start later.”
To truly clear up any confusion about what dating is, Aleece Fosnight, sexual counselor, PA and Medical Advisor at Aeroflow Urology, encourages parents to ask their teens what dating means to them. “There’s so much fluidity that happens. Dating may mean one date but not a relationship and even relationship has a different definition nowadays.” During these conversations, she encourages parents to be wary of staying exclusively in the heteronormative lane. “Don’t make assumptions about who your teen is going to go out with.”
There’s no right age to start dating. Readiness is “defined by maturity and whether your teen is prepared to deal with the complexity of dating,” says Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, Founder and Director of the Center For Parent & Teen Communication. He encourages parents who are deciding whether their teen is ready to date to consider whether their teen can think of other people, demand respect for themselves, and operate from “integrity and honesty and be able to demand the same from others.”
All that being said, the reality is that if a teenager has decided they’re ready to date, they will date, regardless of whether their parent thinks they’re old enough, notes Dr. Smiler. Rather than enforcing a rule that realistically will be worked around, parents should begin the conversation about dating early and build a framework of their expectations. Dr. Smiler encourages parents to explain at what age they believe certain firsts should happen and give a reason for that belief. Also, be honest. Acknowledge that teens will choose their own timelines — and build that awareness into the conversation, too.
There’s no way to discuss teen dating without mentioning “the talk.” The talk that’s often depicted in classic teen movies by a parent awkwardly sitting on the edge of their teen’s bed and saying some confusing words about birds and bees. The talk that no one actually wants to have.
The good news is the entire idea of “the talk” is antiquated. Instead, of “the talk” parents should think about engaging their kids in an ongoing conversation about dating and sex in an age-appropriate manner from childhood. Parents can start talking to their kids “as early as kindergarten about relationships and boundaries,” says Aleece. At that age, the conversations might focus more on friendships and what your child likes and doesn’t like about how friendships feel. Eventually, the conversations evolve.
Thinking of “the talk” as an ongoing conversation is beneficial to parents, too, notes Dr. Smiler. When “the talk” isn’t a single conversation, the pressure to get it right or fit everything into the conversation is gone.
Most importantly, Dr. Ginsburg reminds parents, “It’s not the talk that matters most. It’s that you remain talkable to your child.”
Parents should approach this conversation the same way they approach the conversation about sex — by asking questions and helping their teens learn how to communicate. Aleece suggests role-playing conversations to help teens prepare for a variety of situations or playing the “what if” game — as in “what if so-and-so holds your hand? What if you want them to and what if you don’t?”
Aleece also encourages parents to talk to their teens about enthusiastic consent. Teach your teen that “the absence of no doesn’t mean yes,” says Aleece. Just like the “absence of silent conversation doesn’t mean physical interaction moves forward.”
The unfortunate reality is that teen dating doesn’t just put a teen at risk of heartbreak. Teens can find themselves in controlling or manipulative relationships the same way adults can.
Aleece urges parents to pay attention to whether their teen has changed their normal routine, their clothes, or even who they’re spending time with. These all could be indicators that something problematic is going on.
Dr. Smiler suggests building a framework for your teen to help them understand what a good relationship looks like—even before they’re in a relationship. Asking questions about how they want to split their time between their relationship, friends, and activities, about how they’d feel if their friend spent an excessive time with a new love interest, and discussing what it looks like to give and receive respect. One easy way to start this conversation is to watch sitcoms together, suggests Dr. Smiler. Shows like Friends or The Office — the kind with six to eight characters who are often dating and breaking up — provide a pressure-free entryway into conversations about how people behave in relationships. Ask your teen whether that behavior seems okay to them and why they believe one character got angry at another over that behavior.
More than anything else, the best thing parents can do when their teen begins to date — whether the parent believes the teen is ready or not — is to be present. Dr. Ginsburg urges parents to be a “sounding board” for their teens. “They don’t want to be given the answers, because that communicates that they may not be capable. They want to be able to talk to someone who listens, who reflects, and who gives them space to grow. Part of being a sounding board is to not be too reactive in either direction by being either too for or against a relationship.”
Teens want guidance and reassurance, says Dr. Ginsburg. They want stability, not more drama. “You’re the harbor in the storm. If you remain that force, they’ll always come to you.”
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