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Teens and Romantic Relationships: Advice from a Psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado


How to set rules and create conversation

An interview with Dr Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Senior Psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado and Dr. Christine McDunn, Staff Psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado.

What do romantic relationships look like for children and teenagers?

Younger kids “go out” with someone or say, “That’s my boyfriend in class.” It can be cute, but parents don’t want to overplay the importance of having a boyfriend or girlfriend. In fourth, fifth and sixth grade, it becomes more romantic, but it’s not normal for them to engage in sexual contact. Romantic relationships in general are a normative piece of adolescent development. Healthy relationships have balance, where kids still engage in other activities and spend time with friends and family, instead of hyper-focusing on the relationship. At each stage, kids face competition about dating, just like with sports and grades. There are bragging rights associated with what you did or didn’t do at certain stages with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Kids think they should have done x, y and z by now and feel left out if they haven’t. They don’t need to feel that way. For relationships, every child develops at a different pace.

How can parents encourage healthy relationship behavior?

Invite the boyfriend or girlfriend to your house. Say, “We want you to come to dinner. You’ve become very important to our son or daughter so we want to get to know you.” Make a pattern of inviting all your kids’ friends into the house.Parents should also establish the household rules for dating. Talk about the need to keep up with other interests and schoolwork. Emphasize that having a romantic relationship is a privilege, in terms of allowing extra time out of the house and having a phone. Every night before bed, the teen can put the phone on the kitchen counter to normalize contact with the boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s also very important for parents to recognize that their own relationships are models for their kids.

Should divorced parents speak about what went wrong in the relationship?

As kids start to ask questions, answer them. Talk about other ways to approach situations they’ve witnessed at home. Parents can also say, “It could have worked out this way. We made some mistakes.” If there was a big fight recently, parents should take some time to reflect and get back to the kids, but sooner rather than later. They can say, “Those were issues about finance or the house. That has to do with us. We didn’t need to include you.” Parents can also say, “I didn’t play that particularly well, but I’m learning to do it in a different way,” and that opens the door to modeling.

How do parents keep an eye on their children’s relationships without hovering?

Parents shouldn’t wait to talk to their kids until the concern comes up. Have some sort of maintenance conversation about how things are going, which provides a regular opportunity to talk about things if they go askew, rather than waiting until you see something. Always find a time when the kids are approachable – not during a time of heightened emotion – to communicate your concerns. If you do have to wait until you see something, empathize with them and reflect how important you see this relationship is, how glad you are that they found somebody, but that you have some concerns.

Does high self-esteem help soften the blow of a breakup?

Self-esteem buoys people up and is a good building block of resilience. If your teen takes a cavalier approach – “there’s another guy around the corner” – that may mean he or she is minimizing the importance of the previous relationship. Those who have never experienced disappointment or sadness are the most vulnerable. But if they say, “I think I have some ways to deal with disappointment and sadness,” they will be okay. If you help your kids enhance those areas of life and family, they’ve got other areas of elevation if one relationship ends.

How can parents help their kids get over breakups?

Parents should not feel compelled to fix it. You can’t fix it. But you can get close to feelings in an empathic way. Say things like, “I’m here. How do you feel? You look like you’re feeling this way.” The worst thing to say is, “When this happened to me…” Kids will turn that off. They don’t want to hear about your past unless they ask about it. One of the best things you can do is ask, “How does my kid handle emotions? Can they problem-solve? Can they seek out help if they need it?” Ask yourself what you can do to offer those tools before something happens. You could also allow them to take a mental health day, go to a movie, hang out at home or cook something -- just to spend quality time together. Encourage your teen to write or talk about it. You can offer another adult friend, older sibling, aunt or uncle, just as long as the communication happens.

At what point should a parent seek help for their child after a breakup, which can be an emotional and reactive time?

You can expect reactivity, but over time, you should see it lesson, and see them reengage into life. When you see increasing symptoms of depression, lack or loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities, social isolation, withdrawal or irritability that doesn’t stop, you should seek help. Any comments about not being here or giving things away are cause for concern. When parents start to ask themselves, “Do I need to get help?” that’s the time to get help. You’re responding to something, even if you don’t quite know what that is. There’s also a program throughout Colorado called Safe2tell, where you can anonymously report any threatening behavior that endangers kids, their friends, their family or their community.

Seek help at Children’s Colorado.

Why is it important for children to relate to both their mothers and fathers?

Kids need exposure to both genders. Moms will often say to daughters, “You should talk to dad about this because he’s a man and he can answer some things about this.” And dads often say, “Talk to mom” for the same reason. That’s healthy. Kids will know after a while who they can go to about what.

Does pop culture affect how kids behave in relationships?

Parents often put rules on what kids can watch, like PG-13 or R-rated movies because of the sexual content or the way relationships are acted out. Kids may internalize that content. But if you watch those movies with your kids or talk about them after, that’s an opportunity for discussion. They’re going to watch the movie at Joe’s house anyway. Or you could open things up on the way back from the movie theater, which is a great venue for discussion. “What were the high points and low points?” On the flip side, expose your children to new ideas and culture. You have to get a little venturesome sometimes as parents. And cross your fingers when they go to college.

At what point do you stop talking to your kids about relationships?

If your children value you as a trusted, able and available adviser, they will come to you about relationships. Teens are right there in the present moment and you want to meet them there, but also focus on the long-term future. As you think about the future of their romantic relationship, you also think about the long-term future of your relationship with them. So if you can meet them in the moment, then that bodes well for your future.