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Oregon Family Magazine

Love Is in The Air !

02/04/2021 ● By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Parents are not generally comfortable with the idea of their teen dating; but it’s a fact of life, and better for everyone involved when it’s acknowledged and accepted, rather than denied. As behavioral psychologist Dr. Shane Owens says, “dating is a rite of passage for kids – and for their parents.”  So, what should parents do and say if their teen reveal they’ve started dating?  Here’s what our experts suggest:

Listen Carefully – And Don’t Lecture

You should feel flattered if your teen tells you that they’re dating. It’s a sign they trust you and are excited to share the news with you. “Kids don’t confide in their parents as much as they get older,” says Rachel Ehmke of the Child Mind Institute, “so when kids do feel like talking, really make an effort to be available and listen.” Listen carefully to what they say and try to react in a non-judgmental way. Avoid lecturing them, because if you do, says clinical psychologist Lisa Tiano, “they’ll tune you out, or give you the occasional eye roll, waiting for the lecture to be done and over with.”

Talk About What Good Relationships Are Like

Use the occasion to talk about what good relationships are like. Middle school counselor Phyllis Fagell suggests parents discuss relationship characteristics like dependability, empathy, generosity, kindness, and considering someone else’s perspective. Ms. Fagell adds that parents can also recount their own experiences: “Talk about how you fell in love with your partner.” “What qualities did you admire?” and be honest, even if it wasn’t a perfect experience.

… Talk About Resolving Conflicts

Explain to your teen that conflicts are inevitable even in the best relationships. Encourage them to deal with conflicts instead of ignoring them. Help your teen understand, Ms. Ehmke says, that “it’s much better to admit when something is wrong, talk about it together, and try to fix it together.” It will better prepare them well for what it’s like to be in a mature, adult relationship in the future. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jose Delerme adds that parents should teach their teens that arguments aren’t about winning or losing: “shift the idea of control to compromise, because no relationship should be one-sided.”

Encourage Them to Keep Their Friends and Interests

Remind your teen how important it is for them to have their own interests that are separate from their boyfriend or girlfriend. Dr. Delerme encourages parents to explain that “relationships should complement your life – not define it.” Also encourage them not to ditch their regular friends just because they’re in a relationship. Explain, Ms. Ehmke says, that “no one wants a friend who will throw her over for someone else, and you still need a social life outside your boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Offer Perspective

Anyone who’s been in love knows the feeling can be all-consuming. Your teen may feel their current partner, especially if it’s the first one, will be their one and only ever-lasting love. As parents, we know better, but should fight the temptation to minimize the relationship or make it bigger than it really is. Well-known lifestyle writer Dina Cheney puts it well: “When your child reveals a crush for the first time, it’s easy to accidentally make fun of it, but you should resist the urge to trivialize things.” But, she says, parents shouldn’t aggrandize it either: “asking your son or daughter if they’re going to marry the person, for example, would apply too much pressure.”

Get to Know the Partner

Invite the boyfriend or girlfriend over to the house. It shows them that you’re comfortable with the idea of them being in a relationship, and that you care. If your teen thinks you genuinely want to get to know their romantic partners, says Amanda Morin, senior expert at Understood, an education think tank, “they’re more likely to open up to you – and possibly, less likely to engage in questionable behavior.”

When to Intervene

One of the toughest questions is when parents should intervene in their teens’ relationships, possibly to end them. Experts agree that parents should do so if either of the kids aren’t treating the other well. “If you overhear your teen saying mean comments or using manipulative tactics,” says Ms. Morin, “speak up. Similarly, if your teen is on the receiving end of unhealthy behavior, it’s important to step in and help.”

Navigating these first relationships is an important life process, and can be exciting, confusing, fun, and sometimes even challenging. Be there for your kids – on the periphery and enjoy this snap shot in time!

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.