Hearing that your teen is in love can be terrifying. As parents, we know the emotional and often physical commitment these words bring into a relationship, yet seeking out and experiencing love is a normal part of teen development. When your teens share their feelings with you, avoid having emotionally charged discussion. Their disclosure can become a gateway to help them make healthy decisions about relationships.
Changes Creating Sparks
Adolescence is a time of emotional, physical and sexual growth. Throughout this pivotal time, teens become increasingly involved in romantic relationships that may lead to sexual experiences. Understanding exactly what is happening (and why it is happening) can help you support your son or daughter throughout puberty. Start early, and talk with — not at — your teen about relationships, sex and your expectations. Talking about sex, before teens become sexually active, builds trust and a strong foundation to continue the discussion as they get older.
In early adolescence — 9-to 13-year-old girls and 11-to 14-year-old boys — teens begin searching for new people to love in addition to their parents. This can mean stronger relationships with friends and new romantic relationships. During middle adolescence — 13-to 16-year-old girls and 14-to 17-year-old-boys — there is often experimentation with deeper romantic relationships that includes sexual behaviors. During this stage of development, teens also progress into abstract thinking and can contemplate the future, hence seeing themselves with “the one.” In late adolescence — girls ages 16 to 21 and boys ages 17 to 21 — young adults are gaining the ability to think ideas through and make independent decisions. They’re also developing greater intimacy skills and are more capable of close, complex relationships. It is also during this time that sexual behavior becomes more expressive and many teens become sexually active.
Responding to your teen’s feelings of love for a romantic partner is no easy task, but equipping yourself with proven communication strategies that foster two-way, positive communication will make it easier. Tips to help guide the discussion with your teen follow.
Guiding Your Teen Towards Healthy Decisions
* Encourage your teens to love and value themselves. You may think they love themselves a little too much sometimes, but when teens accept, respect and value themselves they are less likely to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors.
* Encourage your teens to leave nice at the door when it comes to ignoring their needs, wants and desires in favor of their partner’s. Help them think through ways to let their partner know what is right for them when it comes to sexual activities.
* Clearly express your expectations for their relationships and sexual behaviors by providing guidance, not lectures.
Consider this scenario: You teen had previously made the decision to wait to have sex and is now has found “the one.”
Tip 1: Build mutual respect with empathy
While your first inclination may be to discount the credibility of feelings of love, it’s important to take your teens seriously. Responding with an empathetic statement that reminds them of their planned behavior — “It can be hard to wait to have sex when you’re in a relationship, and I know you’re committed to doing that” — gains trust and builds a strong foundation for future conversations.
Tip 2: Ask open-ended questions
Once you set the stage for the discussion by responding with respect, it’s time to move the conversation forward by letting your teens do the talking. As a parent, that can be a very difficult task. Communication strategies work best when they are designed to encourage thoughts about a behavior and foster discussions around those behaviors. It’s important to ask a question that gets your teens talking, such as: “What do you need in order to keep this commitment to yourself?” Challenging them to think through the steps in order to maintain or change a behavior is key.
Tip 3: Listen and reflect
Listen to what they say, and offer suggestions they may not have thought about: “Those are good ideas. Can I share some other things for you to think about?” Asking permission gives them a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect that you are talking with them and not at them.
Tip 4: Plan ahead
Follow up by sharing ideas they may not have considered, such as:
* Avoid being alone in a house with your romantic partner by inviting others to be there, too.
* Talk with your partner about your decision to wait so that you are both on the same page.
* Think through and practice ways to respond if your partner is pressuring you to have sex.
You and your teens don’t have to dread talking about love, relationships and sex. Having the tools to navigate conversations and a common goal of safer behaviors puts you on the right course to supporting them.
Dr. Jennifer Salerno, DNP, CPNP, FAANP, is the author of Teen Speak: A how-to guide for real talks with teens about risky behaviors. With more than 20 years of experience as an NP working with diverse adolescent populations, she is the founder and CEO of Possibilities for Change, an organization dedicated to transforming adolescent health through innovative healthcare delivery systems designed to support healthcare professionals and empower adolescents and their families.