Teen Dating: Tips for Parents

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Adolescent and Family Therapist, Yshai Boussi, joined us today to discuss what can be a tricky issue for parents:  teen dating.  These are Yshai's tips to help parents help their teenagers develop healthy relationships:

Teens and Dating
Kristina, a recently divorced single mom, enters the office and quietly sits down, her face marked with irritation. After a few seconds and some deep breaths, she begins: "My daughter Vicki, she seems to bounce from unhealthy relationship to unhealthy relationship. She doesn't stand up for herself and let's guys walk all over her. Her grades have been slipping and she's not as focused as she once was. She doesn't seem to care what I think." After a brief pause, Kristina begins to sob as her true concerns emerge. "I see Vicki in relationships that are just like the one her father and I were in. We had no respect for each other and I never spoke up for myself. I missed out on a lot as a result and it makes me sad to see Vicki going down that same path."
Kristina's strong feelings and concerns are common for parents with teens in relationships. While it's true that teenage dating can be fraught with risky scenarios and poor decision making, the opposite can also occur. The intensity of teen relationships present an unparalleled opportunity to develop greater maturity and wisdom. The fact remains that whether we like it or not, the majority of teenagers are, or will be, in dating relationships. Many of these relationships will involve experimenting with sexual intimacy. In this article, we'll explain why your active involvement will be essential to help your teen develop healthy sexuality and relationship skills. We'll also give you our tips on how to significantly increase the likelihood that your child will remain safe and grow in a positive way from their dating experiences.
It's not too late to have a positive impact. 
Adolescence is the period where children are transitioning into adults. Like it or not, they're growing into a modern version of you. Teens are biologically designed to be intensely curious about relationships, dating and sexuality. Your child has spent their entire life closely observing you in your intimate relationships. Specifically, they've been watching how you express your needs, manage conflict, talk about your partner when they aren't around, express love and affection, respect yourself and your partner and manage intimacy.
If you are like the majority of parents, you haven't always modeled the gold standard of a healthy relationship to your children and you may have some regrets in this area. Whether you are prone to airing your conflicts directly and out in the open or your tendency is to avoid and settle for quiet tension, your teen is impacted just the same. Kids have an innate ability to misconstrue and internalize negative interactions between their parents. Teens most often re-create the relational interactions they have observed from their parents, making how you relate to your partner the single most important factor in supporting your teen in having healthy relationships. 
For these reasons, it's essential that you engage with your child in some thoughtful ways. How you connect with your teen around issues of dating will have a significant impact on the quality of their relationships and the degree to which they feel empowered to make healthy and informed decisions.
As with all of our suggestions and tips, we don't pretend to offer easy or quick fixes. Real change and growth is a process that takes time, patience and persistence. If you feel like your relationship would benefit from some additional support, it may be very beneficial for you to work with a counselor as well.
Whether your teen hasn't yet begun dating, or has been dating for a while, these suggestions are intended to help your child minimize painful mistakes and learn and grow from their inevitable mishaps.
1. Take Your Teen's Relationships Seriously. Many teens take their relationships every bit as seriously as adults and we have to honor that, even if we think we know better. Never minimize your child's emotional experiences in dating relationships. Think back to when you were a teen and how intense your feelings were, your teen is now experiencing the same thing.  Minimizing your child's experience is the quickest way to be shut out of their life.
2.  Don't Assume Your Teen Gets It. Teens need specific help sorting out the nuances and complexities of dating and intimacy.  Most teens don't understand how contraception works or even exactly what sex is. In addition, few teens have considered the long term emotional ramifications of their choices. Being informed will NOT increase the chances of them becoming sexually active. 
3. Figure Out Why Your Teen Isn't Open With You. They may be trying to protect you from additional stress, anticipating a predictably one-sided lecture or over reaction or they may be ashamed or embarrassed and fearing judgment. Additionally, your teen simply may not always feel comfortable talking with you about intimate details of their life. 
4.  Make Sure Your Teen Has Other People To Talk To About Dating And Intimacy.  These can be difficult topics for a teen to talk about with their parent.  Make sure there are other people they can talk to whom you trust, such as an aunt or uncle, older sibling or cousin.  Ask that person to take an active role in helping your teen make healthy decisions when dating and be a support to your teen if they need dating advice.  Make sure your teen and the adult know that you respect the confidentiality of their relationship.
5. Model Healthy Relationship Skills. This applies to single parents as well. Do you do everything you can to work together positively with your child's other parent? Do you model respect and healthy communication? Do you say only neutral or positive things about your child's other parent in their presence? 
6. Talk Openly About The Messages In The Media And Pop Culture. Suspend your moral and value judgments, even though many of the images in the media seem to send unhealthy messages. The goal should be to invite and encourage dialogue and thought.
7. Acknowledge and Discuss Past Mistakes. The older kids get the more they are able to benefit from seeing their parents as real human beings and the more frustrated they get when their parents fain perfection. Your teen will internalize personal stories you share much more than your lectures.
8. Don't Focus On The Person They're Dating. An unhealthy relationship says more about your child's internal struggles than the other person being a bad influence. Forbid them from seeing that person and they will find someone else that is as bad or worse.
9. Support Your Teen In Having Healthy Friendships.  Be positive about your teens friends and get to know them.  Like it or not, your teens friends will likely be their strongest influence and support when it comes to dating.  It helps if you have a positive relationship with your child's support system.
10. Keep Talks Frequent And Casual. In the car, while cleaning, during transitions and joint activities are all times when teens may be more open. Plan on chipping away at these topics gradually over time.
We understand that dating can often be a significant source of stress and concern for parents of teens. It can be easy to fear the worst for your child. Teens have spent a lot of time observing their environment and they've made many assumptions about relationships and intimacy based on what they've seen. What most teens have not received, however, is the opportunity to ask questions and have open dialogue about these issues with healthy adults. Don't let them fool you. Your teen is going through a monumental transition and they need you now more than ever.   


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