Strategies to Help Your Child Navigate Their First Relationship
You remember the feeling of your first crush, first date, and first kiss. Unless you are still with that person, you also remember your first heartbreak. I can still recall riding in the car with my dad just after that first "relationship" ended. (It lasted one month.) "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia played on the radio and you would have thought the world ended. In my 15-year-old mind, it had.
As your son or daughter experiences their first relationship, try to channel feelings of what it felt like to be their age. You may be wondering, "how involved do I get?" Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, defines three paths typically taken by parents: “Parents who end up being overly involved in their child’s romantic relationships can provoke children to avoid candid and important discussions with a parent. By the same token, parents who let their child lead the way can feel relatively helpless but also accidentally allow well-meaning peers to guide the child with their romantic feelings and involvement. Parents and children collaboratively finding a ‘middle path’ of involvement will almost always be the optimal approach. It’s very important for parents to remain as flexible and patient as possible as their child enters this new, exciting, and sometimes overwhelming experience.”
Read on for some common issues and tips on how to handle this new phase in both you and your child’s life:
Communication, and "The Talk"
If you want your son or daughter to confide in you, your stance needs to be non-judgmental. If you haven't had "the talk" yet, now is the time. You know your child best, but at the end of the day, you want to empower your child to make smart, well-informed choices. Hormones are raging, and despite curfews and ground rules set by you, teens will find a way around them if that is their goal. Give them the tools to be safe. You may have your own personal or religious beliefs to share on this topic, but focus more on why you made the choices you made, not what your child “has” to do as well.
Dr. Hersh recommends getting a jump-start on this discussion, preferably before your child is involved with someone romantically. “Many parents can feel a bit nervous when their child becomes romantically involved for the first time. This is quite natural and common. Parents (and by extension, their kids) can empower themselves well before their romantic feelings and relationships are a reality. Periodic and empowering conversations can happen at younger ages that can set the stage for children understanding how they’re expected to treat the romantic partner, what involvement parents can or should have, and what the family values are around dating and physical/intimate involvement at particular stages of development.”
Get to Know Him/Her
When the timing feels right, invite the significant other to join you for dinner. Building a relationship with your child's boyfriend or girlfriend will (hopefully) lead to feelings of mutual respect and best-case scenario, you actually enjoy each other's company!
Like any young love, there is the infatuation phase. But how much is too much? Is your child losing interest in school, friends, activities, or household responsibilities? Have a conversation about how a healthy balance is important not only for the relationship but for your child's well-being and future. You be the judge on whether you should impose a “suggested schedule” or better yet, offer tools and guidance on how your child can create one.
When to Intervene
Do you have concerns that the boyfriend or girlfriend is a bad influence in any way? (Significant age gap, encouraging bad habits, pressuring them sexually etc.) It may be worth intervening, but be prepared to walk a fine line. Steamrolling the situation will only lead to you becoming the enemy, but you may lose an opportunity to help your child if you are too lax. This may be the time to speak to a professional counselor who specializes in adolescents to find the right words for the specific situation.
More likely than not, your child will experience heartbreak, which naturally may be painful for you to witness as well. As parents, you have the perspective to know that there are “plenty of fish in the sea” and many more relationships to come, but to someone experiencing their first heartbreak, this doesn’t seem true. So what can you do?
- Just be there: let them cry, let them talk, and let them be. It’s OK if they hole up in their bedroom sobbing to a song on repeat. (I may or may not have had experienced this with “Linger” by the Cranberries.) It’s also OK if they shut down – just remind them that you are there for them if they need you. Everyone processes things differently.
- Let time pass: As with any loss, time helps and the stages of grief happen. When it feels right, rally their friends or do something special together. Remind them that they have a lot of great things in their life to be happy about, or if this is hard to do, brainstorm ways to help your child reengage with the world in a positive, healthy way.
- Seek professional help: If you are concerned that your child has fallen into a depression or is at risk of harming themselves, seek professional help.
Navigating your child’s first relationship is a first for you too. Supporting your child through their choices and experiences will have its challenges, but do your best to stay calm and empathize – your teenage-self will thank you. Get more resources on your child's sexual health here.
Bonus: Check out this article from Teen Vogue to get some perspective on “hooking up too soon.” It may be something you share with your child depending on the circumstance.
Written by Phase2Parenting
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.