It seems to happen overnight. The child you nurtured for more than a decade all of a sudden looks like a baby-faced adult. Then there are the more subtle signs: showers without nagging, more attention to clothing choices, caring if things “match.” Maybe there are whispered conversations with friends and shy behavior around the opposite sex out in public. Then you notice it – another teen (or worse, a young adult) is “checking out” your child! Then your child is talking about dating! Though it comes as a shock, the way you handle this has more influence than you might think.
Though the impulse may be to lock your child in his or her room until you are grown up enough to handle this, this is not the best option. Remember, this is normal. It is a natural progression, a part of adolescence. You were once there too. If your own teen memories induce panic, consider ways to steer your child to making better choices.
Teens have a lot going on in their lives. Brain science is just catching up and is telling us that the teenage brain changes more in these years than possibly at any other time of life. The hormones that come along with puberty change their bodies and cause extreme emotional upheaval. They also, we are learning, make teens more likely to act impulsively.
As a parent, you want to shield your child from pain and danger. As children grow, they are supposed to gain more autonomy, which of course exposes them to more and bigger dangers. Dating does not have to be viewed as one of these. It can be just another step on the road to independence. While your child may initially attempt to hide these new feelings, encouraging your teen to be open about their relationships can help you to remain an influence in their lives, at a time when he or she possibly most needs and is least likely to ask for your guidance.
Though some parents have established rules about the age at which their teens can start “dating,” it is important to remember that individuals develop and mature at different rates. Society bombards us with images of “love,” of how dating should look. These ideas often conflict, so it is no wonder teens are confused. On a related note, sometimes friendships suffer, as teens pair up and “single” friends get left behind.
Sometimes, a relationship gets serious. Teens say they are in love. Adults say that they are young, too young to understand love. Maybe, maybe not. No matter how long they last, first relationships are exciting and confusing. They are also oftentimes crushing when they end. Though your teen may be pushing you away, there are ways you can help them through these challenging times.
Keep the lines of communication open
It is difficult to think about your child growing up and becoming an adult. There are many signs that this is happening. Talking about tough subjects like drinking, drugs and sex can be a challenge, but studies show that parents have a tremendous amount of influence over the decisions their teen children make. Being willing to have the dialogue makes it more likely that your teen will adopt your values.
Listen, hug, make yourself available
This can be an opportunity for you to bond. The key here is to listen. Your advice is likely not wanted anyway. Demonstrating affection reminds them that they are lovable. Everyone has relationship problems from time to time. It is normal to disagree. Sometimes talking things through helps to better understand a situation. It is easy to get caught up in a relationship, to become part of a couple and lose your own identity. Remind them of what makes them special. Find things for you and your teen to do together; talking is easier when no eye contact is necessary. Teens are often uncertain about many things and may open up if they don’t feel as if they are being interrogated.
Enforce curfews and set limits
It has been said that nothing good happens after 1 am (or midnight or whatever time is reasonable considering the age and maturity of the child). No teen will admit to wanting limits, but setting limits is good for them and can give them the means to say no to peer pressure. Ask where they are going and with whom, as well as when they plan to return. Establish consequences if rules are broken. If it is appropriate to ask if other parents will be present, ask that as well. My kids know that I ask all this so that I can reach them in case of emergency and that I will worry if they are late and don’t call.
Encourage teens to nurture their other friendships
It is common for some people (not just teens) who are in a romantic relationship to focus only on that relationship. Gently remind them that their other friends are important too and may be feeling neglected. Maintaining individual interests is important. Abandoning interests and hobbies to please someone else is living a lie. Ditching plans with friends for a date is just plain rude. (I have found that two things teens really don’t like being called are “false’ and “rude.”) Having your own interests outside of a romantic relationship is important. It isn’t healthy to rely on one person for everything.
As thrilling as these new relationships are, when they end, it can be painful. Even if the relationship was short-lived or appeared superficial, and you saw the end coming, be empathetic. Your teen has suffered a loss and needs time to process it. Depending on the child, he or she may need your help with this. Try not to take it personally if he or she shuts you out for a bit (but watch for signs that intervention may be needed, a little sadness is normal, but it shouldn’t interfere with daily life).
Do not badmouth the ex
Besides setting a bad example, this can backfire, because just like elementary age friendships, teenage breakups are sometimes temporary. Telling your teen that their ex is horrible can be awkward, to say the least, if they get back together the following week and your child has told the other teen what you said. Worst case, he or she keeps the relationship a secret from you and/or it damages your relationship with your child.
The dating years may be the most challenging ones of parenting. Dwelling on your own teenage years may make it easier, or worse. Remember, you made it through tantrums and the sassy years. You’ve got this.