Being a parent is one of the most challenging jobs and responsibilities one can bear. But being a parent to an adolescent that just developed their first crush… fasten your seatbelts because you are about to endure one bumpy ride. It isn’t always so scary though; your child is finally ready to start exploring more of what the world has to offer, and you must support them during either this very exciting or slightly confusing time.
Donneisha Williams, a Licensed Professional Counselor at a New Orleans middle school, sees hundreds of students a day and is here to help parents figure out exactly what they should be doing to help their children. After all, the dating scene has changed a lot since before you had your children (hello Snapchat, goodbye answering machine!) so it’s okay to not know where to start. While there is no specific age when kids begin developing crushes or wanting to go on dates, it’s important to start having conversations surrounding the topic pretty early on, so they’re prepared for whatever comes their way once they enter middle school or high school.
Determining Your Child’s Interest
Initiating conversations about love and dating is crucial, even if your child hasn’t brought it up yet. Considering factors like age, developmental readiness, and appropriateness, these discussions should commence around the time your child enters middle or junior high school (at the latest).
“Start these conversations from a lens of transparency and open-mindedness,” says Williams. “Asking open and honest questions from a non-judgemental perspective is really important.”
She also points out how these are not just “one-and-done” conversations. They evolve as your child grows, presenting more questions and experiences. As a parent, setting the tone for these ongoing discussions is your duty, ensuring an open and honest relationship. If you’re not engaging in these conversations, your child might seek information from less reliable sources, such as the internet or friends. Louisiana schools also mandate education on healthy relationships throughout high school, providing an opportunity to align school teachings with personal or family values.
You vs. Your Child vs. The Internet
The modern-day technology landscape can evoke mixed feelings for parents—either exhilaration or terror. Recognizing that children and teens are digital natives, Williams acknowledges their proficiency in navigating technological sources. While monitoring your child’s online presence is important, finding the right balance is key. Acknowledge that the internet is a primary communication source for children and encourage discussions on appropriate content and the consequences of inappropriate use.
Williams also addresses the often-overlooked topic of sexting, emphasizing the need to educate teens on proper social media use and the legal implications of sending inappropriate content. Bridging this discussion with topics like self-esteem and peer pressure contributes to shaping your child’s views on positive and healthy relationships.
The Hard Stuff
Discussing sex with your child can be awkward but is crucial for their understanding and well-being. Creating a safe and trusting space from an early age makes it easier to navigate these more “adult” conversations. Williams underscores the importance of parents educating themselves on these subjects, given that children often learn about sex online before parents can discuss it with them.
As teens enter middle or high school, conversations about age-appropriate expectations and consent become vital. Williams recommends sparking these discussions early on, emphasizing the importance of understanding consent and its revocability in sexual relationships.
Parents may find it challenging despite their research efforts, but there are support groups and counselors like Donneisha Williams available to help with any confusion.
Searching for Signs
You can provide your child with all the tools and information needed to safely tackle the dating world with open arms, but sometimes it isn’t always enough. In the United States, up to 19 percent of teens experience sexual or physical dating violence, about half face stalking or harassment, and as many as 65 percent report being psychologically abused according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
While you may have dedicated years to harboring a safe and honest space for your child to open up in, it may be difficult for them to come forward with issues like these. Williams explains how you can often look for physical or behavioral changes in your child’s day-to-day life to determine if they are being abused.
Ask yourself: are they crying a lot over their relationship? Are they more withdrawn? Are they still seeing and talking to their friends? Take notice too of how your child’s partner is acting. Are they spam-calling your child multiple times within an hour? Are they questioning your child’s whereabouts or who they’re hanging out with? Beyond the physical signs, these are all indicators that your child may be in an abusive relationship and it is time to step in. If you even begin to question your child’s partner or have safety concerns, always trust your gut.
When it comes to relationships, the big things Williams always takes notice of are power and control. Typically, an age difference of three years or more in adolescent relationships indicates an imbalance of that power and control, increasing the risk of your child becoming involved in negative behaviors like physical, drinking, and drug abuse.
Protecting your child from potential relationship issues is a priority, but instilling fear through harsh boundaries may not be the most effective approach. Williams suggests discussing safety strategies rather than imposing strict “ground rules.” Consider engaging your teen in conversations about personal values and self-respect. You can also encourage group dates to not only enhance safety but also provide peace of mind.
Preparing for uncomfortable situations, Williams also recommends the use of “safe words” that can be texted to parents, signaling the need for intervention with minimal questions.
Final Words of Wisdom
As parents, we know you always want to have your child’s best intentions at heart. As long as you remember to push for open and honest communication, while still giving your child space when needed, you’re setting the stage for healthy relationships, not just for your child and their partner, but that parent/child bond as well. Dating is a natural part of human development. It helps teens discover who they are and helps them learn how to build social and emotional relationships.
“I think the more we encourage healthy and safe relationships to our teens,” Williams says, “I think we will start to see a pattern of safer and healthier adult relationships.”