Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats to Emma Mullings about how to handle childhood romance.
What’s a parent to do, when their nine-year-old announces they have a girlfriend, a boyfriend, an admirer, or a ‘crush’?
If you’re Dr Justin Coulson from HappyFamilies.com, then you’ll probably discourage the relationship. The families expert and dad-of-six-daughters told Hope 103.2 he actively discourages his kids from having romantic relationships until high school is over.
He did admit, though, that he has his own biases, and said that while there’s no hard-and-fast rules, there are some guidelines that all parents can consider when it comes to their own children.
Start a Conversation With Your Child / Teen
If your child has a love interest or a schoolyard romance on the boil, Dr Coulson believes you should, at the very least, start a conversation with them about it.
Talk to them about what the friendship / relationship / love interest means, and what’s the wisest way to handle it at this point in their life.
“I think what matters most is not the age, but the conversation that we have with our children around these relationships,” he said.
“We want to really encourage our children to make safe and healthy decisions in their relationships, and to think carefully about what the relationship really does mean, what behaviours are ok, and what might lead to more risk or more challenge in their lives later on.”
Talk About The Relationships Their Friends are Having
Another way to open the ‘boyfriends and girlfriends’ conversation ahead of time, is to chat to your kids when they come home with stories about their friends.
Has Cheerleader Emily’s BFF just got a new boyfriend?
Did Skaterboy Matt just join the lineup of guys who have a crush on Tayla?
Have the school’s popular-guy and it-girl just started ‘going out’?
Talk about these situations. It’s a great way to help your child learn from them, says Dr Coulson.
“We talk to our kids about relationships all the time,” he said. “They’ve watched some of their friends have these relationships in the playgrounds, so we start talking to them about it.
“We ask them, ‘What have you noticed about the way they treat their friends once they get into this relationship? How do they treat you? How do they treat one another?’ And then once it all ends, which usually takes between two days and two weeks, we say ‘So what happened now, how did everyone respond, how did they feel?’
“It’s really a great opportunity for us to teach our kids about relationships.”
Why School Kids are Better off Without Romance
In Dr Coulson’s view, children can get through their primary and high school years with less emotional complications, if they stick to friendship instead of romance.
“We just feel like our children can develop much better friendships without the distraction, pain, disharmony & challenge of romantic interests.”
“I’m not suggesting that children aren’t ready for it or can’t learn things from it,” he said. “We just feel like our children can develop much better, high quality friendships, without the distraction, pain, disharmony and challenge that comes from romantic interests – at a time when they’re probably not quite emotionally mature enough to deal with anything meaningful at a reasonable level.”
As a child, Dr Coulson was a hopeless romantic himself, beginning with his first devastating crush in grade 2, followed by 10 more years of girl-chasing. It wasn’t helpful, he says.
“I was girl-crazy all through school,” he said, “but actually on reflection, it was a big distraction, and I didn’t really learn anything. I just made a fool of myself, multiple times over the years, trying to get some girl to go out with me for two days in the playground.”
What Does The Science Say?
The younger kids start their romantic relationships, the more likelihood of sexual activity at young age, as well as emotional complications later in life as a string of breakups ensues. That’s the science, says Dr Coulson.
“Research does tell us quite clearly that the younger our children get relationally and involved with somebody, the more likely it is that they will become romantically and intimately involved,” he said.
“On average, the younger a person becomes physically intimate – not just first or second or third base but the whole home run – the more likely it is that they’ll have multiple partners, and ongoing challenges in their lives around mental health, self-worth and other associated factors.”
Delaying your sons’ and daughteres’ intimate experiences as long as realistically possible will do them well.
“They’re more mentally healthy, their wellbeing is higher, when they stay away from intimacy in relationships for a longer period of time,” he said.
Falling in Love is Natural, Says 10-year-old School Girl
The spectre of primary school romances made headlines recently, after a 10-year-old schoolgirl from Melbourne wrote a heartfelt letter to her school, requesting a policy change to allow her to have a boyfriend.
Having a boyfriend or girlfriend “helps us practice handling big emotions,” Una asserted in her letter. “Love is, of course, a normal part of life,” she added.
While Dr Coulson agreed with much of what young Una Russon wrote, he believes it’s wise to hold off.
“Of course love is natural,” he said. “Love is a normal part of growing up, and every one of us has been in that experience where you fall in love with somebody, whether you’re 8, or 18, or 48 or 88. And we shouldn’t be stopping that. I would say she’s absolutely right.
“But we get to have lots of experience with big emotions in all sorts of settings [besides a romance], and sometimes it’s better to just wait a little while.”