Discussing Dating & Relationships with your Teenager
Teenage love: it can be exhilarating, exciting, confusing, and sometimes terrifying. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also new, and facing new things is hard; it’s hard for adults, but it can be really hard for teenagers.
The life of a teenager is a complicated. While no aspect of life is really all that simple, being a teenager sometimes just feels like a completely overwhelming mess. Really, being a teenager is a pretty awkward time. Teenagers are beginning to get the slightest taste of a very complex adult world, and sometimes it can taste pretty bitter. You might be thinking to yourself “What do you mean? Being a teenager was so easy—no responsibility, no family to take care of, no grueling job, no bills to pay—there’s no one to worry about but yourself!”. Ok, so maybe a lot of teenagers don’t have adult responsibilities, but they’re beginning to feel a bit more like adults; they have a little more independence, their identities are becoming more developed than when they were children, and there at a time where they have to begin to consider what it is they want from life.
What’s one thing a teenager has to consider about what they want from life? They answer is easy: teenagers are at a time where they have to learn what it means to be in a valuable and meaningful romantic relationship; they don’t have to decide right away, but they still have to think about what being in a relationship means. Relationships are a huge part of life, and it’s when you’re a teenager that you really start exploring that path; and exploring that path means dating. That’s right, your teenager probably wants to start dating.
Does it feel to you like it’s too soon for your teen to begin dating? Maybe, but the truth is that the time is now. It may seem like only yesterday when your teen was just a baby, but now that you have a teenager, you have to realize that she’s growing up (your teen is really going to appreciate it if you acknowledge that fact). Maybe you’re not ready for your teen to date, but that’s irrelevant here (sorry). This about your teenager, it’s not about you.
So, what exactly do you do now that the time has arrived? We all want our children to be happy and safe, and we all know teenagers are very fragile and that dating can sometimes make teenagers feel like their whole world is about to fall apart; so really all you can do is try to give your teenager a little advice during times that could very well be turbulent. You probably don’t want to be overly stern about what to do, what to expect, etc. (teenagers certainly don’t respond well to excessive austerity), but you can still talk to your teen about what it is she’s feeling, and what she could do when she has more questions than she has answers.
Don’t Date to Fit in
First and foremost, you and your teenager need to figure out why it is she feels she’s ready to date. If the reason is because all of her friends are starting to date and she feels pressured to begin dating because she wants to fit in, then you have to let your teenager know that pressure to fit in is not a good reason for wanting to jump into the world of dating. In fact, if the main motivation is peer pressure or the need to do what her peers are doing, that’s a pretty good indicator that your teenager isn’t ready for dating. That’s not say that your teen is lacking in emotional maturity, but what it does mean, is that she’s really just dating for dating’s sake—and that’s not a good way to begin any relationship.
You need to explain to your teenager that dating is a two-way street. Let’s say she starts dating someone, and that person likes your teen a lot. Well, if this individual has strong feelings for your teenager, and your teenager only dates this individual due to peer pressure—things aren’t going to work out so well for the person who possesses feelings for your teen. More or less, it’s important that your teen understands that dating isn’t just about her, but it’s also about the individual whom your teen decides to date. If your teenager just begins dating people for the sake of dating, then she won’t be taking the other person’s feelings into account, and that could eventually turn out disastrous for both parties involved.
If your teen says she wants to date just because her friends her doing it, ask her how she would feel if someone decided to date her just because that person’s friends were beginning to date. Would your teenager feel special or liked, or would she just feel like an experiment of sorts? If her answer is closer to the latter, then your teenager needs to understand that she would be putting whomever she dates in the same position.
Dating just to date or to fit in (especially for young teenagers) isn’t a good reason to start dating. People’s feelings are at stake here, and your teen needs to understand that. What should take precedence is a real desire for an emotional connection, not a desire to just hop on the dating bandwagon.
Date People You Like
This is sort of in the same vein of making sure your teenager doesn’t date just for dating’s sake—or it’s at least an extension of the idea. You should explain to your teenager that she should only date individuals that she actually likes (and individuals she feels pretty sure can reciprocate her feelings). If your teenager dates someone that she really has nothing in common with or only dates this person because the person is attractive, it’s not really a great recipe for success. If your teen just dates at random and it doesn’t work out because of lack of compatibility, this could result in heartbreak or confusion for the person your teen decides to date (and your teen), and it could potentially make your teen feel as if something is wrong with her.
Just think about how your teenager might process her first attempt at dating if it fails simply because she chose a person she isn’t compatible with. If this first attempt is what she sees as a failure, she could be put of from dating in general. She could think, “Well, that didn’t work. I guess I’m not good at this or there’s something wrong with who I am”. You don’t want your teenager to feel that way. It can take a toll on your teenager’s self-esteem, and that’s the last thing you want for your teenager.
Now, if your teenager finds someone to date with similar interests, values, etc. your teen is much more likely to have a successful attempt at dating. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to find the person she plans to spend the rest of her life with, but there’s less risk of rejection in this situation.
The issue of a lesser risk of rejection due to common interests really just has to do with reciprocated feelings. Your teenager is less likely to have her feelings reciprocated if the individual she decides to date doesn’t even have similar interests. If there’s not a lot of compatibility, the probably isn’t much mutual feelings for one another (this can include everything from enjoying a person’s company, to the level of respect). You need to make sure that your teenager understands that dating other people (and doing so successfully) is about finding and building emotional connections with other people. It may seem pretty obvious, but if your teenager finds herself in a dating situation where no shared interests exist between her and the other person, then there’s really no room for a solid emotional foundation to be built.
Explain to your teen that dating without any real emotional connection isn’t even worth the effort (if it’s clear no connection exists in the first place). The reason it isn’t worth the effort is because the whole endpoint of dating is to find someone with whom you can create a meaningful kinship that lasts; it isn’t just about seeing what dating is like. Of course, it’s important for your teen (or anyone) to learn through experience, but you can save your teen a lot of time, trouble, and confusion if you make clear to her that the idea is to find someone she likes.
Just Be Yourself
Maybe your teen is just head over heels for a certain individual, but she feels that this person would never reciprocate the feelings given your teen’s personality and character. If that’s the case, your teen may feel that she needs to act in ways she never would, or pretend that she’s somebody she’s not.
When beginning any romantic relationship—regardless of if you’re a teenager and this is your first one, or you’re an adult who has a lot of experience with relationships—you still have to conduct some self-examination before you enter into the relationship. It’s important that you help your teen know that she needs to understand who she is and that she be comfortable with herself before she starts dating, and that being comfortable with yourself means you feel you don’t have to change who you are for someone else.
If your teen feels she possesses a strong sense of identity (although that can be pretty tough to possess as a teen), then she should understand that by being herself, she can accomplish anything she wants—including success in the dating realm. Explain to your teen that no one should pretend to be someone they’re not simply to attract another individual. You don’t want your teen to lie to herself about who she is; it’s just going to make your teen feel like who she actually is will never be good enough, and she’ll never really know what it’s like to be comfortable in her own skin. Being a teenager is incredibly difficult, and if your teen lies to herself about who she is, it’s only going to make the growing pains all the more unbearable.
Know When to Set Boundaries
Boundaries in a relationship are extremely important (regardless of age), and it’s always a good idea to learn this early on. Learning life lessons firsthand is never a bad thing by any means, but if you at least prepare your teen for a potential disaster due to a miscommunication in regards to boundaries, your teen will be able to handle the situation with a clearer head.
When we think about difficulties with boundaries, we often think of issues related to control. Many people have some sort of experience with control issues in a relationship (whether we’re controlled, we try to control, or we have friends who’ve experienced it), so you should make your teen understand that control issues are most likely going to be encountered at one point or another. In other words, it’s totally normal.
Maybe the person your teen is dating doesn’t want your teen to spend too much time with friends. It’s not uncommon for people in relationships to get possessive, but we all know it’s never a good sign when someone demands that they have you all to themselves. If your teen finds herself in a situation where she’s asked to sacrifice other relationships for the sake of her dating partner, you should make clear to your teen that a sacrifice such as cutting contact with friends is not a sacrifice that’s worth it. If there’s any sacrifice that will cause your teen’s quality of life to deteriorate, explain to her that it’s not a sacrifice that should be made.
While we all want to develop meaningful relationships with individuals that we date, it’s important to remember that we still need to maintain relationships that we already find meaningful—such as relationships with friends or family. If your teenager gets to a point where the person she dates forbids her to see certain people, then that’s a red flag and the situation needs to be handled properly and maturely.
Help your teen to understand that there are times in her life where she’s going to have to tell people no, and that includes individuals that she dates. Your teen might be really excited that she’s found someone she’s connected with on a strong emotional level, and it’s very possible she’d be afraid to give that up. But what if she has to give up other things that give her meaning in her life? Ask your teenager at what cost and to what lengths does she really feel she needs to go in order to keep a romantic relationship intact—and this isn’t a matter of going the distance to get what you want; this is a matter of weighing what’s important and what really matters.
Of course, boundaries don’t necessarily have to be related to control. Sometimes there’s simply just the issue of space. If your teen is in a relationship in which she feels smothered or suffocated, it’s probably not a good idea for her to be in that relationship. It makes sense that your teenager (or anyone, really) would be hesitant to break off a relationship in an instance like this—especially if your teen has tried really hard to make that relationship work. Sometimes people think, “Well, this person really loves me; am I really going to find someone else who feels so strongly about me? Should I give this up?” If that’s a question your teen has to ask herself (or she just asks you) let her know that she’ll most certainly find other people who care for her deeply.
If your teen is uncomfortable because the infatuation of the individual she’s dating simply seems too strong (to a point where emotional health for both parties is affected), then let your teen know it’s not right to be in the relationship. Again, your teen needs to know that successful dating and successful relationships are all about reciprocity, not just being in a relationship. If your teen stays in a relationship that she doesn’t feel comfortable in, simply because she doesn’t want to go back to being alone, she’s only making things more difficult. Explain to your teen that staying in a relationship where there’s a lack of reciprocity is going to result in someone’s feelings getting hurt.
One of the most—if not the most—important boundaries your teen may need to set, are boundaries that concern sexual activity. There’s many instances in which one person in a relationship feels that the time is appropriate for sex, but the other individual isn’t quite ready to take that step. It’s so important for you to make sure your teen understands that she doesn’t have to have sex with the person she’s dating simply because the other person feels the time is right. Let your child know that the time is only right when both individuals feel it’s right; not when only one person feels it’s right.
Teenagers experience enough pressure and confusion as it is, and no one under any circumstances should feel pressured to engage in sexual activity. Whether or not your comfortable with the idea of your teen having sex, it’s almost more important that your teen feels she’s comfortable with the idea. That’s not say you need to feel comfortable with the idea, but what matters in a situation like this is that your teen feels comfortable in her relationship. Whether you or your teen want to have the conversation or not, your teen needs to know that she doesn’t have to become sexually active if she isn’t ready to do so; being sexually active is a choice, not a requirement. Your teen may feel afraid that if she says no to sex she might be abandoned by the person she dating, but you have to help your teen understand what priorities are actually important. And if whomever your teen dates would leave her because she’s not ready to have sex, well you wouldn’t want your teenager to be in a relationship like that anyways.
If your teen is dating someone who she feels is putting too much pressure on her to reciprocate certain feelings, or is pressured to do certain things, tell your teen that she needs to either set boundaries or leave the relationship. Let her know it might be a little uncomfortable or awkward, but setting healthy boundaries is key to a healthy relationship. You need to help your teen understand that being in a relationship in which she doesn’t feel comfortable, is a relationship that’s not worth continuing—for her own sake and the person she’s dating.
How to Handle Breakups
In all likelihood, your teen will probably breakup with whomever she dates; it’s not an inevitability, but the probability is certainly high. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with your teenager (which you should explain to her in the instance of a breakup), but it’s simply because she’s just young and her and the person she’s dating are still figuring things out about themselves. While you’re doing your best to make sure your teen knows herself and knows what she wants before she begins to date, her thoughts, desires, needs, and feelings about the world are most likely going to change, and she should understand that and know that that’s ok.
Not only will your teen’s perspective of the world and perceptions of herself change, but the same thing will probably occur with the person she’s dating. People can change no matter the age, but for teenagers, these changes occur in smaller intervals and they can happen pretty quickly. Often times in relationships, these changes in perspective can sometimes lead to a breakup. If your teenager does go through a breakup (the chances are high), explain to her that people change, and that changes in the perspective of an individual she dates has nothing to do with her.
Your teen is going to hurt; unfortunately there isn’t much you can do about that (being there and being empathetic is really all you can do), but you can still help your teen to realize that the breakup isn’t her fault. Let your teen know that she doesn’t have any control over personal changes that occur (whether the change is in her or in someone else), and that just because people are compatible at one point, it doesn’t mean that the compatibility is going to last forever.
You should help your teen to understand that the fact that she’s changing is a good thing—that she’s growing, and that she’s going to meet someone who will feel the same way as she does.
Let your teen know that her world isn’t as shattered as she might initially perceive; just let her know that she’s entering a new world and that she’s in the position to learn even more about herself. Self-examination is something we have to do throughout the entirety of our lives, and a breakup during your teenage years is a great place to start self-reflection. Help your teen to understand that a breakup can be the key to opening the door to a whole new world of possibilities—breaking up doesn’t mean she has to be stuck in the same dreadful place for the rest of her life, it means she has the opportunity to plant new seeds and to blossom into a stronger and more resilient human being.
It’s also important that your teen understands that one person’s opinion of her doesn’t define who she is as person, and that the opinion of the person she dates is not the end all be all of objective truth. Just because your teen doesn’t get along with one individual, it doesn’t mean she’s hard to get along with; tell her that; explain to her that she can’t let the opinions of others (let alone one individual) define who she is. The breakup isn’t about who she is as a person, it’s about how both individuals are—how both people in the relationship relate to the world differently and need different things from different people. Your teenager needs to know that just because she doesn’t meet the needs of one person, it doesn’t mean she’s incapable of meeting or fulfilling the needs of all people in general. Help your teenager to grasp that one person’s subjective opinion of her in no way translates to some objective fact about herself.
Do What You Think is Right
When it comes down to it, the best dating advice you can give to your teen is just to tell her to do what she thinks is right. Teenagers may not know themselves completely, but they at least know what they want for themselves at certain times (even if what they want changes). Your teenager should know that she should only begin dating, and continue dating, if she feels she’s doing what she thinks is the right thing to do. If the situation doesn’t feel right to your teen, tell her that that’s perfectly fine, and that while she always needs to do what’s right for her, this is especially true when dating.
Sure, she needs to consider the feelings of the person she’s dating, but that’s part of doing the right thing. She needs to consider that by doing what’s right for her, she’s also looking out for the other individual in the relationship. When your teen reflects upon the right thing to do in a relationship, she’s reflecting upon what’s right in general. Doing what you think is right isn’t selfish, and you should explain that to your teenager.
If someone really wants to date your teen but your teen doesn’t feel it’s the right thing to do, great; that just means she has a better understanding of the innerworkings and complexities of romantic relationships. If your teen feels she’s being pressured into sex and doesn’t feel that sexual activity is right, that’s even better; it means your teen is able to think for herself, that she trusts herself, and that she’s able to stand up for herself. If she wants to be in a successful relationship, your teenager should know she should trust instincts, and if she knows that she can trust her instincts, she’ll understand that she’s a strong individual who can face this confusing world with confidence.
There’s really no easy or surefire way to approach the subject of dating with your teenager. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means that it might be a little confusing; and what you should remember is that it’s probably more confusing for your teen than it is for you. Dating is a big milestone in a teenager’s life, and big milestones are always a little scary. Just let your teenager know she doesn’t have to be scared. If you’re there for your teen to help her navigate through the process, you’ll at least know that it’s going to be a little bit easier for your teen.