The age of romantic awareness varies tremendously from one child to another. For some, feelings of attraction start in late elementary school; for others, it’s not until high school. But regardless of how old your kids are and whether or not they’ve already expressed interest in someone else or even begun dating, parents should always be prepared to proactively communicate what a healthy relationship looks like. Here’s how:
1. Set the stage. Take your child’s relationships seriously. Attractions are normal and will only increase as they grow. Remember, the way they view and conduct romances now paves the way for future dating relationships.
2. Make sure you’re speaking the same language. Ask your child how they define “dating,” “going out” or “having a boyfriend/girlfriend.” Then share your views and in doing so, reinforce the need to always respect others and oneself.
3. Keep the lines of communication open. If the relationship has gelled, continue dialoguing so you know how it’s progressing. Ask open-ended questions in a casual way: “What do you like about this person?” “How do they treat you?” “What do you have in common?” “Who are their friends?” “Do you feel respected by this person?” This gets your child thinking about what is important in a relationship.
4. Establish and discuss relationship boundaries. These could include not being alone with their romantic interest, parental supervision when spending time with each other in their respective homes, physical touch boundaries, socializing in group settings rather than one-on-one and having a curfew, to name a few. Equally important is helping your child understand why these boundaries are being established, so they can begin to develop a strong, healthy and self-protective internal compass.
5. Set expectations in other realms of life. Remind your child of the importance of remaining focused on academics and extracurricular activities, as well as maintaining current friendships. Set guidelines about how much time they can spend with their sweetheart, including chatting on the phone and online.
6. Monitor media exposure. The messages young people receive from music, TV, movies, books and magazines are laden with love, sex and relationships. Make sure the messages they’re being exposed to line up with your family’s values. When they don’t, seize those opportunities to discuss your values in a nonconfrontational way. Realize your child may question your values, particularly if they don’t reflect media messages or their friends’ values. This is normal and means they’re simply questioning, but not necessarily rejecting, what you embrace.
7. Know the company they keep. Peers have a tremendous influence on the way your child thinks, talks and acts. Open your home and encourage your child to invite their friends over so you know who they are and see how they interact.
8. Allow them their emotions. Don’t minimize your child’s feelings, no matter how trivial they may seem. This is particularly true for boys, who are typically socially conditioned to think they need to suppress them. At the same time, teach your child to make decisions based on careful thought, not heartfelt emotions.
9. Lend your support. Many tween and teen relationships are short lived. When your child’s romance ends, however badly they’re hurting – or not – expressing sensitivity and empathy toward the situation will build trust and a healthy bond between you.
10. Know when to intervene. If a relationship moves beyond innocent, your child becomes obsessive or you begin to see other unhealthy behavior, contact your school counselor or another relevant professional for advice.