By Christine Murray, PhD, LPC, LMFT, Director of the Healthy Relationships Initiative
Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form here.
I just found out that my 13-year-old son has his first “girlfriend.” He hasn’t said much more about it than that, but I want to make sure I talk with him to help him make good choices as he’s starting to think about dating. Any advice? ~ Not Ready for This
Dear Not Ready,
For parents of teenagers, it’s natural to feel like you’re not ready for your son to start dating yet. After all, it probably feels like it was just yesterday that he was in diapers, and now he’s entering to a whole new world that you—with your own life experience—know can be very, very complicated.
Even if you can’t get a lot of information out of your son yet about his new relationship, you still can make efforts to talk with him so you can help guide him in making good decisions. Although these early relationship experiences can be stressful—for teens and their parents—they also can be great learning experiences to help set your child on a path toward building healthy relationships throughout their lives.
One important starting place, before you even talk with your son, is to spend time thinking about your values and rules that you want to put in place related to your son’s dating at this age. Be sure to talk these things through with anyone else involved in parenting your son, including your spouse if you’re married. Some parents decide to put an age limit on when their children officially can start going on dates, and some also decide to limit early dating experiences to group outings, rather than one-on-one dates. Because different parents’ values can vary so widely on this topic, the most important thing is that you’re clear about what information about you want to communicate to your son so that he’ll understand your expectations.
Once you’ve taken some time for self-reflection on this topic, plan how to approach this topic with your son in a way that will make him feel safe to talk with you, both now and in the future. You can anticipate that your son probably feels a little embarrassed to discuss this topic with you, so be sensitive in your approach to bringing it up. Try not to pry too much, because too many questions may lead your child to open up less, not more! One great way to encourage your child to open up more about this topic is to share some of your own experiences when you first started dating—this can help them see that you understand some of the emotions they may be feeling, such as confusion, excitement, and nervousness!
Through the Healthy Relationships Initiative, we’ve developed a Toolkit for Teenagers that includes some tools you may find useful to include in your discussions about dating with your son. These tools are designed to help teens reflect on their beliefs about relationships, have conversations to help them talk about relationships with the important people in their lives, and gain practical relationship skills. These tools could be a good starting place for conversations that help your son think through what it means to have healthy relationships in many different areas of life, including dating.
And, as important as it is to help your teen understand what healthy relationships look like, it can be just as important to talk about unhealthy relationships so that they’ll understand red flags to look for in someone who may be abusive. Dating violence is far more common than most parents think, affecting about 1/3 of all adolescents in the United States (LoveIsRespect.org). As a parent, it’s important to educate yourself about the warning signs so that you can educate your child as well.
Although the topic of dating can be an intimating one for many parents of teenagers, this is also an area of life where you can have a powerful impact on your child’s life. Relationships are full of ups and downs, and teens often have lots of questions, but they don’t know who to ask (and often don’t even know what questions they should be asking!). If you treat these early conversations with sensitivity and show your child that you’re there to help them navigate this tricky area of life, you’re setting the stage for many more opportunities to help them through relationship dilemmas throughout their life!
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