By Meghan Vivo
It's a sure sign that your child is growing up when they embark on their first romantic relationship. And though your tween or teen is taking another step toward adulthood, they may not be emotionally prepared for the ups and downs of their first love (which is commonly followed by their first break-up).
Even though the thought of your teen entering the world of dating and relationships may strike terror in you (you've been around long enough to know that early relationships can set the tone for all future relationships), you have an important role to play in preparing your teen to make healthy choices.
Research published in the journal Child Development shows that teens' choice of romantic partner as early as middle school has long-term effects on their emotional and social health.
Despite the fact that teen dating is dramatically different today than it was in decades ago (with Facebook, teen sexting and widespread promiscuity), a study by Stephanie Madsen, associate professor of psychology at McDaniel College in Maryland, shows that teens value parental input and tend to have healthier relationships when they get advice from their parents.
Though you can't protect your child from a broken heart, you can help guide them through the maze of teen dating by following these suggestions:
Discuss the Details. It may be hard for your teen to imagine you out on a date, but chances are you have at least some experience in this area. Share what you know, such as restaurant etiquette, what to do when the bill comes, how to politely end a bad date, and how to handle the goodnight kiss or pressures to have sex.
Also talk to your teen about what to look for in a boyfriend or girlfriend. They'll likely have their own ideas, but it never hurts to explain why dating the popular kid, the jock or the best looking person in class might be overrated. Instead, encourage your teen to consider how much they have in common with their love interest, how smart and caring the person is, whether they enjoy spending time with them, and how they treat others.
When talking with your teen, be as understanding and nonjudgmental as possible. It may have been many years ago, but you can still remember how nerve-racking, exciting and terrifying one's first forays into the dating world can be. Most adolescents fall in love for the first time and are convinced that it will last forever. You don't need to be the voice of doom, as most early relationships end before the school year is up.
Don't get discouraged if your teen doesn't respond the way you'd hoped. Chances are they're listening to what you have to say and are just too embarrassed to admit it.
Know the Plan. Before your teen goes on a date, make sure you know where they will be, who they will be with and what they will be doing. Dating violence is unfortunately common and you want to be prepared to take action if needed. Let your teen know they can call you if they feel uncomfortable with anything that happens on a date or if they end up drinking too much or getting themselves into a bind.
Establish the Rules. Your teenager is not yet an adult and is still subject to your rules. Even though your son or daughter feels that they are in love, they may not fully understand what love is and how it differs from attraction. This means extra precautions are necessary to protect your child's emotions and to help them make decisions they won't regret.
Many parents insist that their children wait until age 16 to go on their first date, and some allow only group dates for a period of time. Talk to your teen about your concerns and expectations and establish the ground rules together.
This is also an ideal time to talk about sex and share your family's values and morals. Today's teens already know far more than the basic "birds and the bees" lecture, so you'll need to provide detailed, relevant and accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and other issues. If your teen is feeling pressured to have sex, talk about the reasons waiting may be best and ways to say no.
Be Your Teen's Biggest Fan. When a teen's first love (or subsequent relationship) ends, the heartbreak can feel earth-shattering. Many young people carry the scars of this pain into their adult relationships, so parents need to be particularly supportive and sympathetic during these times.
Romantic love is intense and is a new experience for teens. Even if the relationship was obviously doomed from the start or only lasted a couple weeks, your teen's pain is real to them and deserves validation. Show that you care by actively listening to your teen's feelings without badmouthing their love interest.
Let your teen voice their hurt in their own way, even if it seems irrational or overly dramatic (e.g., they refuse to eat, cry uncontrollably, blare sad music or spend the entire weekend under the covers in bed). Because of their developmental stage, it is normal for tweens and teens to experience intense feelings of both elation and sadness that may seem extreme to you. If you're afraid your child is crossing the line into teen depression, seek advice from a therapist or other professional.
If your teen shows interest, talk about your own past experiences to show them they are not alone and that they will find love again. Breakups can bring deeper issues and insecurities to the surface, especially if a teen has experienced past trauma, their parents' divorce, a death in the family or other distressing events. Healing takes time and can't be rushed, so be supportive for as long as it takes.
For some teens, their first love is someone they lose quickly but remember forever. For others, their high school crush may be the person they end up spending their life with. Whichever holds true for your teen, their first romantic relationship presents a valuable opportunity for you to share your values with your child and get them started on the right path toward feeling the joy and meaning of lasting love.