Teenage dating is a rite of passage for parents and teens. Gone are the days of meeting the date in your living room. Now, young adults “hangout” or “hook-up” at all of the places you would expect – the mall, the local park, the unsupervised teen home. Moreover, teens are “plugged in” to their technology and are “hanging out” online with that special person. All of this can make it that much more challenging for parents to support and monitor the relationship or even catch on that a teen is dating! Yet, as teens begin to experiment with intimate relationships outside the family, they rely on those loving relationships at home to remain solid and serve as a sounding board for what they are learning about close friendships and romantic relationships.
No one teaches teens how to date. It is mostly trial and error. Teens observe and imitate relationships they see in their family, community, and the media. Learning through mistakes builds lifelong skills but can hurt a great deal in the moment. Don’t be surprised if you end up holding or comforting your big hulking teenage son over a broken heart, or sitting with your teenage daughter holding the tissue box for them.
You can’t shield your teen in a constant protective bubble but you can provide a safe space for your teen to communicate about relationships. Communication with your teen about dating and relationships takes ongoing work. Even if your teen isn’t dating start communicating your values about sex and dating. You help your teen communicate by honestly but lovingly sharing your thoughts and emotions about a variety of situations with your teen and creating a place where they feel comfortable talking.
Expect to be pushed away until you are needed. Since teens can be extremely secretive about their dating life, a key piece of creating a safe space is to start by listening. Teens are often simply looking to be heard not to be fixed. You should directly listen to your teen AND “listen to” or observe their relationships. However, be subtle because asking too many questions will be seen as intrusive and snooping. The snippets of information that come your way when least expecting it can reveal a variety of information about your teen’s romance. As you are watching the drama unfolding from a safe distance, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are both teens mutually respected, supported, and valued for the unique person they are? Respect in a relationship means that each teen values who the other is and understands — and would never challenge — the other person’s boundaries. There should still be two separate identities obvious to you.
- Do both teens make decisions together? In a healthy relationship, everyone needs to make compromises but you should not see that one teen is more dominant than the other. Do they take turns choosing which new movie to see? As a couple, do they hang out with his friends as often as they hang out with hers?
- Do both teens still have friends and interests outside of the relationship? Neither teen should have to pretend to like something they don’t, or give up seeing their friends, or drop out of activities they love. And they also should feel free to keep developing new interests, making new friends, and growing as a person.
- Do the teens settle disagreements with open and honest communication? Some of the common communication mistakes that teens make include saying negative things about their partner’s behavior to another friend rather than communicating directly, using silence as a form of punishment, or expecting that their significant other can read their thoughts. If you notice common communication errors occurring between your teen and their partner, gently suggest more effective ways of interacting.
- Do you hear laughter? Your teen and their partner should continue to have fun together. Are the teens relaxed and do they seem to enjoy every day simple things? If you overhear language that is encouraging, respectful and appreciative then you can relax too.
Dating is a normal and important part of teen development. The joy and heartbreak of dating and navigating romantic relationships are experiences that help teens decipher what is important in their future relationships. These relationships help teen’s values and interests rise to the surface and identify characteristics they value in another person.
As a parent you are essential in helping your child make sense of his or her relationships. When you treat your children, partner, and friends in healthy, supportive ways, your children learn from your choices. By working to openly communicate with your teen, you help your teen make sense of all the new emotions they are feeling, guide them into making healthy choices, and provide support when things don’t work out as planned. You may just find that by focusing on the other relationships in your teen’s life, you enrich and strengthen your relationship with your teen!
If you are interested in this topic, please check out our other posts on encouraging healthy relationships in your teen’s dating life and what to do if your teen is in an unhealthy or unsafe relationship.
Article written by Nancy L. Vance, M.S.
Nancy Vance is the Family Living Educator for Clark County, WI. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois with both a Master’s of Science degree and a Bachelor of Science degree in the area of Family and Consumer Science. Nancy has had many diverse careers in the field of Family Science but most recently, she was the program director for a domestic violence agency in Illinois where she worked with families impacted by violence and abuse.