How Parents Can Help Teens Navigate Relationships

How Parents Can Help Teens Navigate Relationships
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How Parents Can Help Teens Navigate Relationships

Let’s face it: no parent is exactly eager for their kid to start dating. For many parents, a teen’s first relationship is an undeniable sign that they’re growing up and they’re not a little kid anymore.

But as much as parents may hesitate to admit it, relationships are part of life, especially as children become teens. Relationships are an important avenue for teens to find their identity and place in the world, and guidance and open communication from parents can make the process easier.

We sat down with Samantha Quigneaux, LMFT, national director of family therapy services for Newport Healthcare, about how parents can help their teens navigate relationships as they get older.

Psst… Here’s some expert advice on how to teach children about financial literacy!

Parents can start establishing the framework for teens to have healthy relationships early on. What might these early conversations look like?

Helping our children develop healthy relationships means discussing what characteristics of a friendship or relationship make us feel most safe, comfortable and happy. Are the people they surround themselves with kind, thoughtful, and considerate of their feelings and experiences?
These conversations can start as early as elementary school. When your child tells you about their friend, ask them “What do you like about this friend?” or “What kinds of things do you do together that you enjoy?”
This is also the time for you to help your child thoughtfully address conflict and learn how to advocate for themselves. If they tell you about a playground disagreement, ask them how they felt about the situation and what they did to help themselves feel better in the moment. This is an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving.

Some of the earliest relationships kids observe is the relationship between their parents. How can seeing this relationship affect kids?

The relationship kids observe between their parents is unquestionably the most impactful. Children are incredibly observant and aware of dynamics that exist between their parents and family members. Like most situations, children learn how to interact with the world and those around them from their caregivers.
Children will look and learn unknowingly at communication and conflict resolution. This is applicable to parents who are coupled, uncoupled, as well as single parents. Children also internalize what they will view “acceptable” and “normal” relationship patterns from their parents and caregivers.

How can parents ensure they’re modeling a healthy relationship for their children?

Modeling healthy relationships is certainly heavy lifting. In order to do this, parents must be honest with themselves, and be able to take stock of the way they interact and communicate with their partners or other caregivers.
Healthy relationships mean prioritizing feeling safe, valued, respected and cared for. Are these dynamics present in the home?
When conflict comes up, is this done effectively or aggressively? Modeling a healthy relationship at its core is stopping to ask yourself “Is this the type of relationship I would want my child to be in?” If not, consider what changes need to be made.

What advice can parents give to their teens as they’re getting ready to start dating?

As teens start to be interested in having a romantic relationship, it is important for parents to approach it with curiosity about how their teen views dating. Encourage open communication and discussion about what it is that interests them in dating and what they are looking for in a potential partner. How are they hoping to feel in a relationship?
Parents should remind their teens that a partner should help them to feel like the best true versions of themselves. Someone who cares for them and respects them will make them feel empowered and strong.
It is also important that parents remind their teens that dating can be an exciting adventure and journey of discovery, but to listen to their heart and gut; if something feels “off,” they should trust themselves and reach out for support.

It’s important for people of all ages to know what an abusive relationship looks like in order to stay safe. What are some warning signs for abusive relationships that teens in particular should look out for?

Abuse is all about power and control. So, if at any point a teen is feeling as though someone is trying to disempower them or control certain aspects of their lives, this is a big red flag. This may look like a partner telling them what to wear, who to hang out with, rules to adhere to, or to break.
Other warning signs are the teen’s mood and engagement in everyday things that previously brought them joy. If a teen is experiencing increased anxiety, depression, or emotional dysregulation, or if they no longer want to join the family for dinner and would rather isolate, these are critical warning signs of an unhealthy relationship.

Teens should be able to come to their parents with problems as they grow up, including relationship problems. How can parents lay the groundwork for this open communication?

The key here is curiosity rather than criticism. You want to show your teen that you are able to hold a safe, calm, and respectful space even when discussing difficult topics, and especially when your teen is being vulnerable.
When discussing relationships with your teen, try to go beyond “What did you do with them?” to “How does this person make you feel? What qualities do you like about them?”
Teens are working through their identity and finding their place in the world, and relationships are certainly a part of this. It is important to discuss with your teen the differences between privacy and secrecy. It is absolutely reasonable for there to be aspects that they do not share with their parent(s) because they are private and personal, but secrecy means they are intentionally withholding information that they fear may bring judgment, criticism, or punishment.

Other Things to Keep in Mind:

Every teen is going to approach relationships differently. Some may lean towards engaging in more casual dating while others want a “serious” long term relationship. It is important to understand what your teen is looking for and not to judge or diminish their perspective.
This means not perpetuating stereotypes or belittling their intense feelings with comments like, “You’re only 16. You’re not going to marry this person.” or “Be careful how many people you date so you don’t get a bad reputation.”
This type of “advice” does not address a parent’s deeper concerns, and it will likely put the teen on the defense. You also risk losing open communication. If parents notice concerning behaviors, it is important to approach it from an emotionally focused place.
Another element of teen dating that must also be under the umbrella of safety and communication are topics related to sex and sexuality. Parents need to be a safe place for their teens to express themselves, and to be able to have conversations about their bodies and their attractions.
These can be difficult topics at any age, particularly as teens develop their own notions around romance and sexuality. We want to reinforce to our teens that we can handle uncomfortable conversations about these important issues.

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