Teaching Teens about the Emotional Aspect of Intimate Relationships

We are all familiar with the public service announcements encouraging parents to talk to their children about drugs and alcohol, internet safety, and sex.  I even saw one recently about safe driving habits like not texting or eating behind the wheel.  But have you ever wondered why aren’t parents encouraged to talk about love and dating?  I mean we know that when parents talk to their children about smoking and share their values about sex or alcohol that they can influence kids to make better choices.  So why aren’t we being called to influence our children to make good relationship choices?

How to date may not seem like it should rank very high among the many other issues facing teenagers today.  The use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, eating disorders and body image issues, and even the rise of cyber bullying all seem like greater threats to our children than dating the “wrong guy” (or girl).  Yet when you consider that almost ¾ of all 8th graders are dating; and, according to the CDC, by high school more than half of them will experience some form of dating violence (either emotional, physical, or sexual) suddenly healthy relationships becomes a much higher priority on the “keeping our kids safe” list.  In a world filled with distorted images of love and intimacy- ranging from unrealistic fairy tale romances to sexually explicit, emotionally detached affairs to  violent and controlling examples of “love”- our children need guidance now more than ever.

If you are like many parents, your dating advice may only consist of telling your child to wait and have sex after marriage or when they fall in love.  But how will they know when its love and if it is how build a healthy relationship whether or not it includes sex?  So many teenagers and young adults today are creating relationships without any concrete ideas about what a “good’ relationship is really like.  Many go out into the dating world looking for a relationship that’s just “not like their parents”.  Either growing up with parents who do not seem to truly love or like one another or in single parent households, children may find themselves creating a list of don’ts without every considering what they do want.  Even children that grow up in homes with two l parents who have a healthy relationship are struggling to really define what it is they are seeking in a partner.

Setting a good example is part of the picture but often as parents the example we set through our behavior is incomplete.  Happily married couples may begin a heated discussion as the kids walk in the room but table it until everyone is in bed.  Maintaining appropriate boundaries is essential and children do not need to be exposed to every parental disagreement but if they never see you work through an argument then how do they learn what conflict resolution really looks like?   Single parents may begin dating again but exclude their children from the process.  Of course you can’t have your teenage son picking out your next boyfriend but you can talk with him about the qualities in a man that would make him a good mate.

Regardless of the status of our own love life, our children need to hear from us about what a loving, mutually satisfying relationship is about.  I often say that one of the greatest gifts that my mother (and father) gave me was a positive view of marriage.  My parents were divorced when I was in elementary school so it was not by example as much as through honest discussion.  We talked about the value of working at a relationship, learning to grow together and supporting one another’s dreams.  They taught me that relationships require work and although they were not successful in working through the issues in their marriage, it is possible and worth the effort to always try.

Those are some of the same relationship lessons that my husband and I try to instill in our children.  We, like all parents, have a vision of what we want their lives to be and that includes their love lives.  You can’t dictate the kind of person your child is going to fall in love with but you can help them to think about what qualities will matter the most.  Is it going to be more important that our daughter’s boyfriend be attractive or that he is kind and respectful?  Will our son choose a girl because of the great car she drives or because she can engage him in stimulating conversation?  We can’t give the final answer to these questions but as parents I believe that we can have a significant influence on them.  The impact of the dating choices they make early on reaches further than just the possibility of teen pregnancy, a controlling boyfriend, or just a broken heart.  These relationships set the tone for teenagers’ sense of self and create a blueprint for adult intimacy.  So I encourage you to talk with your child this week about love and relationships.  Not sure where to start?  Why not just start by asking them what they think about loveand dating.  You might be surprised by what you learn and what they are ready to learn from you.