For parents of teens and young adults, watching children enter the dating phase can be both rewarding, and tough.
Rewarding – as it can bring a new source of joy to the grown-up child and their family, and tough – as it can also bring about mistakes and heartache.
But parents need not watch powerless from the sidelines.
According to psychologist Collett Smart, mums and dads can help guide their teens or young adults into good choices.
The secret ingredients? Love, sensitivity, grace and wisdom.
How Young Is Too Young?
In Collett’s view, there’s definitely such a thing as “too young for dating”, as it takes time for teens to develop the maturity they need for a relationship – which, potentially, may lead to marriage later in life.
As a parent of teens herself, she has put this advice into practice.
“Young teenagers shouldn’t have serious dating relationships; 14-year-olds do not need to have an intense boyfriend or girlfriend,” Collett said.
“Group dates with a bunch of girls and guys to public places or homes, supervised by an adult, help teens to get to know what they like in a girl or guy, learn about the opposite sex and become comfortable being themselves.”
She is quick to add that this doesn’t mean young teens won’t start growing an interest in particular guy or girl. It’s what they do with that interest that matters.
“It is naïve of parents to think that their young teen does not develop feelings for a boy or girl at various times in their high school years,” she said.
“These feelings change quickly and often, but it is important not to put them down as ‘silly’ or childish. It is a normal part of growing up and becoming a teenager.”
Don’t Be So Embarrassing!
It’s crucial not to shut down the potential for conversations with your teen about matters of the heart, by either embarrassing them, or laughing off their feelings.
“Belittling your teen for having feelings is the quickest way to ensure they never come to talk with you about relationships as they get older,” Collett said.
“Talk about your time growing up and the difficulties you had, so that it’s a time of sharing and openness.”
“Acknowledge that they will have feelings, talk about people you were interested in as a young teen.
“Then use this as an avenue to chat about how they may not be ready for serious intense relationships, but can being to find out what they like in guys or girls, and what qualities they don’t find attractive.
“Talk about your time growing up and the difficulties you had, so that it does not become a time of interrogation, rather a time of sharing and age-appropriate openness.”
Set Boundaries That Make Sense
When it comes to setting rules around the time your teenager spends with the opposite sex, use logic and reason and respect their intelligence.
“Don’t just forbid certain activities; explain why you are doing so,” Collett said.
“Doing this will help your teenager understand that you’re not merely imposing arbitrary rules.
“They may still not like your most well intentioned boundaries, but that is normal. Teenagers still need their parents. It is a fine balancing act between not being totally hands-off, and letting your teen develop autonomy.”
Build A Culture Of Honest Sharing
If your only topics of conversation with your teen are their messy bedroom and their unfinished homework, then your chances of having a warm chat with them about which guy or girl they like, are low.
Encourage close sharing by talking to them regularly about a range of topics.
“It is important to talk about many areas with your son or daughter, as they grow up—not just dating in isolation,” Collett said.
“Talk about friendships, school, sport, interests. Share times with them where you do things your teen loves – bush walking, kicking a ball, playing a video game, shopping, having a milkshake with them.
“Use these times, as well as trips in the car, to chat about their lives in general. This will become something normal to do, and so chatting about relationships doesn’t come suddenly and seem forced.”
Find Out About Your Child’s Friendships
She said the best way to open the topic of you son or daughter’s relationships, is to start small.
“Begin by asking what their friends are doing and what your child thinks about their behaviours or relationships,” Collett says.
“This gives a good window into your child’s thoughts and struggles. The more conversations you have, the less likely he or she will be to get into trouble.”
Encourage A Wide Variety Of Interests
A teen relationship in which the young couple spend all their time together, isolated from other friends and activities, is an unhealthy one, according to Collett.
She believes this can spring from a low sense of self worth. Parents can help to prevent this by building up their son or daughter with a sense of value, and encouraging them to be involved in many areas of life.
“As a parent, it is your job to teach your teenager the importance of self-worth,” she said.
“Encourage your teens that they don’t need to “find themselves” in other people.”
“Help them to maintain their friendships, hobbies, sports and other interests. Romance is only ONE dimension of us as whole people.”
What If They Have Made A Bad Choice?
One of the toughest times for a parent is when their teen or young adult child links up with a boyfriend or girlfriend who is “bad news” – or unsuitable in the parent’s eyes.
While it’s tricky territory to navigate, the parent has to tread a fine line between intervening, and giving the child freedom to choose, and to learn from their mistakes.
Collett said the level of a parent’s intervention depended largely on the child’s age and maturity.
“If your teen is still young, you have more say in when and where he or she sees this person, as you are usually doing the driving and will have more direct supervision if they are in your home,” she said.
“If you are too oppressive and restrictive, you will be guaranteed rebellion and distance.”
“So if there is dangerous behaviour, like drugs and underage alcohol use, a parent can still have a lot more say.”
“If your teen or adult child is driving and over 18, it’s still OK to tell them you don’t think that a certain person is best for him or her. But constant nagging may result in secrecy or outright rebellion.
“If you are too oppressive and restrictive, and always talking rather than listening, you will be guaranteed rebellion and distance. They may dig their heels in to try to prove you wrong.”
When All Else Fails, Apply Grace
If your young adult or older teen is determined to continue a relationship that’s not great for them, remember to apply grace and acceptance.
Your child still needs to know they have a safe place in their family, says Collett.
“Tell them that even though you may not agree with the behaviour of the person they have chosen, because of your family values, you will be there for him or her to come and talk with you at any time of the day or night—without judgment,” she said. “And then stick to it.”
“If you always keep the door open for discussions, your teen will be more likely to come to you with questions or problems.”
She added that the parent’s role in a child’s life can continue long into adulthood.
“I still went to my own mum for parenting advice when I had my own babies,” she said. “A relationship built with your teen can develop into a beautiful friendship as they become adults themselves.”
About Collett Smart
Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, lecturer, author, wife and mother of three children. She writes on many issues affecting teenagers, at Familysmart.com.au.