Developing a strong bond with your children during their childhood and pre-teen years helps lay the groundwork for them to feel comfortable talking to you about sex, dating, and relationships. When they do begin showing interest in dating and sex, your input is essential. “The more conversation and closeness you can foster from an earlier age, the easier this discussion is going to be during the teenage years,” says Stephanie Krauthamer Ewing, Ph.D., MPH, a clinical psychologist specializing in child and adolescent psychology. When you think your child is ready to start dating, having an open dialogue with them also offers the opportunity to talk about what forms a healthy relationship. Here are five ways you can teach your teen how to have positive, comfortable, and enjoyable relationships:
1) Talk about dating
Let’s say your teen tells you there’s someone at school who likes them. Ask them how they feel about that. You may also want to ask them if they have similar feelings and if they think about exploring those feelings. Or, start a conversation asking whether anyone is dating at school and if anyone has caught their eye. Be open, respectful of their thoughts and feelings, and prepared for whatever they may say.
“Listen to your child and let them know that you’re not there to judge or come down in an overly critical way,” says Dr. Ewing. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with everything they say or be ok with everything they want to do, but that you are there to help them understand their feelings and the world around them. You want them to know you are trustworthy, you love them and want to take care of them, and if they need to talk about dating or relationships, they can come to you.”
2) Lead by example
Your young person observes your every move, so it’s essential to show them healthy and happy interactions to have a great model. “Whether they’ve watched you in positive relationships, either with them, your spouse or partner, your friends, or other family members, they need to see what a healthy relationship looks like,” says Dr. Ewing. Show your teen that a healthy relationship consists of trust, honesty, communication, understanding, and the freedom to be themselves. Let your child see you treating your loved ones with compassion, respect, and kindness. This modeling teaches them how they should behave toward others and how others should treat them. On the flip side, explain to your son or daughter that an unhealthy one involves mistrust, disrespect, manipulation, possessiveness or jealousy, belittling, and in some cases, violence.
3) Help them establish boundaries
Let your teen know that it’s ok to have a significant other but that a relationship should not take up all their time. Discuss the importance of setting boundaries and limits so that they’re not ignoring other important aspects of life — like their friends, family, school, and extracurricular activities. “If your child’s relationship is getting too intense too quickly, sit down with them and tell them that you’re worried about how much time they’re spending with that person and that you’re noticing they’re neglecting some of the other things that are important to them,” suggests Dr. Ewing. Help them to understand that unhealthy, or even abusive, relationships can start with jealousy towards existing close relationships with friends and family.
After pointing that out, help your teen set up boundaries. That could include guidelines like only dating on weekends, leaving the week clear for school and other activities, or setting a curfew. Explain to your teens that you expect them to observe these limits, or there will be consequences.
Also, make sure to talk about sex and let your teenager know they should not partake in any activities they are not ready for. Teach them what consent means, how drugs and alcohol impact decision-making, as well as the consequences and repercussions that could come with having sex at a young age — pregnancy, contracting a sexually transmitted infection, and feeling used. Help them understand they can have healthy romantic relationships that don’t have to become physically intimate at this stage of their life.
4) Look for warning signs
Teen dating violence is more common than most people think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10% of female high school students and 3-7% of male high school students report experiencing some form of dating violence in the last year.
If you suspect your teen is being pressured or forced to engage in behavior they don’t want to participate in, or being manipulated, made to feel bad, or physically (or digitally) abused by their significant other, talk to your child about what’s happening. Hopefully, if intimate partner violence (IPV) is occurring, they will want to end the relationship. But if talking doesn’t seem to help and your young person doesn’t want it to end, Dr. Ewing suggests family therapy or individual therapy for the teen.
Your teen can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) for help. “The sooner this gets addressed in your child’s life, the more likely they’re not going to have problems down the line with it,” says Dr. Ewing. “The same thing applies if your teen is the aggressor in the relationship. It’s our responsibility to raise teens who are healthy and respectful of their partners.” Dr. Ewing also recommends getting to know your teen’s friends. “You should get to know the person your teen is dating, and they should be coming to your house and interacting with you,” she says. “That allows you to get some sense of who this person is and see how they interact with your teen.”
5) Be supportive
Dating can be a rewarding experience for your teen, but it can also be scary and heartbreaking. Make sure your teen knows you’re there to offer guidance, support, or a shoulder to lean on. Offer stories about your dating background that may help them navigate their own experiences. “If you plant the right seeds and nurture the relationship with your teens during these difficult years, there is more often than not a bountiful harvest on the other side of adolescence of having a really good relationship with your adult child,” says Dr. Ewing.