One of the more daunting things about parenting as your child heads into the teen phase is dating. It’s naturally unnerving as you know that they may experience heartache, disappointment and rejection. But as uncomfortable or scary as it may feel to consider your child pursuing a romantic partner, remember that this is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of any young adult’s emotional development.
My work at The Wise Family mainly involves working with little ones. When I saw the theme of this month’s blog – teen dating – I thought to myself, “I don’t have very much to say about that!” And it’s true, my daily work at The Wise Family does not involve very much talk about teen dating. However, parents of young children, please don’t skip over this month’s posts! This topic is for you, too.
Your little one will someday become a teenager, and they might become a teenager who wants to date. Think: what skills do you hope your child will have that will serve them well in dating in the future? Independence? Healthy boundaries? Knowledge of their own body? Trust in their own intuition?
Are you supporting their development of these skills now, so that they will have them when they are a teen? I am excited to talk more with you about this topic next month, but for now – you can take heart when your child declines to drink from the blue cup (when they obviously wanted the orange one) or melts down when you turn off Octonauts. Your little one is an independent person who knows what they want. And however challenging these traits can sometimes be in our little ones, they are powerful gifts for our teens.
Everything about teenagers intrigues me. Not just because this is my target population for therapy, but also because I have raised four myself. One of the most important lessons I always reflect upon is when it comes to teenagers, expect the unexpected, be patient, and respect their voice. Recognizing that socialization and connection with peers are major in teenagers’ development, it is important parents and therapists expect the transition into the dating arena to be full of emotions and challenges for the teen.
The societal expectations of gender identity, social media acceptance, and boundary setting all contribute to the growing list of challenges teens face when they start dating. When thinking about what to write for this blog entry, all I could think about was the potential dangers of teen dating and how to help teens and parents when they are confronted with it. From sex to domestic and sexual violence to teen pregnancy, helping teens means hearing them.
Hearing is a primary skill of a therapist and is tremendously important when working with teens to understand all they are dealing with. As a parent and a therapist, I focus on being present, non-judgmental, and supportive. Validating the teens feelings and concerns about dating helps strengthen the trust bond with the teen and gives the teen the safe space to communicate, explore their feelings, and problem solve. The goal for me in supporting teens as they journey through the dating stage is to encourage and empower them into building skills that support healthy and happy adult dating relationships.
The tension between supporting our teens’ growing independence and ensuring their safety can become a bit puzzling. While we may want to wrap them in bubble wrap, keep them home where we know they’re safe, and make sure that nothing bad – physically or emotionally – ever happens to them, successfully parenting a teen involves enabling their development so that they are best equipped to healthily transition into adulthood.
If we do not let them take risks, how will our teens learn how to cope with hardship? If we do not have open and honest conversations around dating, or we do not “allow” them to explore romantic relationships, will our teens grow into adults who know what a healthy relationship looks like? By allowing our teens to have (reasonable) independence in dating and fostering open communication about these experiences, we are not enabling their failure. In reality, we are teaching crucial skills such as reflection, resilience, how to navigate heartbreak and disappointment, and how to create and maintain healthy boundaries.
While parenting a teen can feel like playing a game of whack-a-mole at times, try to ground yourself by thinking about the type of adult you want your teen to be. Spend time reflecting on how your parenting decisions are helping them to transition into healthy adulthood. That scrawny boy Steve your teen is dating? He may teach them more life lessons than you think. And those life lessons will probably stick a bit more if your teen knows that they can turn to you as a sounding board.
When I saw that the blog topic was teen dating, my first reaction was “Yikes, how does this topic relate to the client population I am most known for serving?” After a deep breath and a quiet moment to think, I realized that I actually do have professional skills and knowledge to contribute to the conversation.
As with everything in our lives, we don’t just jump into it from nowhere. We are on a developmental journey that begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. As a parent with a pre-teen and teen, at first glance the topic of teen dating makes me a little bit nervous. Will my kids make smart choices? Will they feel rejection? Will they experience heartbreak? The answer to the last two questions is undoubtedly “yes”. My children will, at some point in their lives, experience rejection and heartbreak. It is never fun but it is part of life.
The smart choice is a bit harder to answer as it depends on if we, as parents or adults in a child’s life, teach and model healthy relationships. Doing our best to model healthy relationships is one of the best things we can do to set our children up for healthy relationships in the future. Youth.gov notes that “respect for both oneself and others is a key characteristic of healthy relationships.”
Other characteristics of healthy relationships that can be taught, modeled, practiced, and developed throughout youth and beyond are honesty, compromise, problem solving, empathy, good communication, and boundaries. Stay tuned next month for some ways to promote some of these skills in your pre-school and elementary age children.
Until next time, Be Wise!
“Oh my gosh, my daughter just thinks Grace is amazing and I am so glad that she has someone to talk to that isn’t me! She is so happy after her sessions! Thank you.”— Mom of 15 year old client
“I went home and practiced what Dr. Amy taught me…and it worked!”— 8-year-old coaching client
“This is my 1st visit at WISE with my son. So far I am very thankful and impressed by the space. I feel light and comfortable here while my son works on his growth. I appreciate that you curated the process well.” ~ WISE Family parent— Thankful and impressed by the space