Dating is considered part of normal development. In other words, it's a skill that teens have to develop and master, just like they had to master walking when they were toddlers. For parents, these experiences can feel very different. While a child is learning to walk a parent can stay by the child's side, hold his hand, even pick him up after he falls, but when a teen starts dating, parents are sidelined. This can be frustrating and even stressful, and not only because dating is yet further proof to parents that their baby is no longer their baby. Their teen might be spending less time with them, even expressing a desire to spend less time with them. Parents may also be dismayed by their teen's sexual choices, or the nature of their relationships. They may also notice that their child is disrespected by their partner or forced to text constant updates about where they are and what they are doing.
Whether teens are dating or not, it's a good idea to talk to them about what a healthy relationship looks like. Parents should identify relationships which are healthy, and discuss what makes them this way. Trust, honesty, mutual respect, fairness, and a fostering of individual identities are all traits of healthy relationships. Parents should try to model these qualities in their own relationships if possible, including their relationships with their teens. Giving a teen space to explore love and dating is a way of doing this. As I've often said in this blog, it's important to give kids autonomy and to let them make their own mistakes. Independence is not only what teens crave, but what allows them to grow into resourceful and resilient adults, and dating is no different. Grappling with heartbreak, and how to express love and choose a mate, is part of a teen's journey towards finding a life partner.
What I like to tell parents of teens is: no matter what happens, stay away from the should statements. You know what these are: you should settle down, you shouldn't put up with that, you should break up with him. When parents tell a teen what to do, it can inhibit his development, and also alienate him. When he really needs advice he will be unlikely to come to them. Even if the teen agrees with his parents, hearing what he should do from them can add to the stress and confusion he feels. Teens are still relatively new to relationships, so being open and honest with a partner, or letting one go, are new skills, and they may feel uncertain how to manage these.
So what's a parent to do? First, they should talk to their teen about his or her relationship, and by talk, I mean, listen. Listening, calmly and without judgement, shows your teen that he can be open with you, and also that you will believe and support him. Let your teen work through any normal frustrations on his own. Try not to criticize your teen's partner, but help your teen evaluate his partner's actions. Parents can do this by asking questions like, How did you feel when he treated you in that way?
If -and when- teens express dissatisfaction with their relationships, parents should encourage them to think about how they can address it. If teens are uncertain how to do this, parents can try walking them through the process.
Let’s say you did talk to your partner, how would you feel safe doing it? What would you want to say?
Encourage your teen to write down a speech and practice it. This is something I often do with teens in my counseling practice. Parents can even help role play the situation as well.
Finally, parents should make sure that teens know that verbal insults, mean language, and hitting or forced sexual activity, are all signs of abuse. (It's not a bad idea either to educate them on how common teen dating abuse is -1 in 3 teens report experiencing some kind of abuse from a dating partner. ) Parents of teens who are abused by a partner should do their best to offer protection and support for their child, and to remind them that they have value, and are loved. They should also arrange for their teens to see a counselor or to join a support group so that they can work through their trauma with a professional. The repercussions of not doing so are real. Victims of abuse are more likely to be depressed and to do poorly in school. They may also be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse.
Dating -even just the possibility of dating- is part of what makes adolescence such a heady time. My final piece of advice to parents of teens is this: remember the thrill and fear of young love, and exercise empathy towards your teen. Empathy may not be as thick and soft as the cushion you used to hold beneath your child as he learned to walk, but it's the cushion he needs now.