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Teen Romantic Relationships: Advice from a Psychologist

Your teen has announced they are "going out" with someone for the first time. First, take a deep breath. It was going to happen eventually. Romantic relationships are a normal part of adolescent development, even if you feel unprepared for this moment. Jenna Glover, PhD, a child psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, provides some guidance to help parents navigate teens and dating.

Healthy teen romantic relationships

At any age, healthy relationships have balance. Kids should still engage in other activities and spend time with friends and family, instead of hyper-focusing on their relationship. This can help your child maintain perspective. Teens can also feel a sense of competition with their friends as it relates to dating. They think they should have done x, y and z by now and feel left out if they haven't. Encourage them to just focus on their relationship and resist the urge to compete. For relationships, every child develops at a different pace.

Talking to your teen about sexual health is also a good idea so they (and you) are prepared when the time comes.

Rules for your teen's dating life

Parents should also establish the household rules for teen romantic relationships. Emphasize that having a romantic relationship is a privilege in terms of going on dates and communicating with their partner over the phone. Establish times when they should be focused on family or other interests.

Just as you would have your kid's friends over to your house, invite their 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."

Keep an eye on your child's relationship

Try talking to your teen about their relationship before a major concern comes up. If you have regular conversations about how the relationship is going, you can discuss issues as they arise rather than waiting until you see a change in your child. Try to find a time when your kid is open to hearing your concerns rather than during a time of heightened emotion. If you do have to wait until you notice an issue, empathize with them and reflect on how important you feel their relationship is. Let your child know you’re glad they found somebody, but that you are concerned about them.

Helping your teen after a break up

You probably feel a parental urge to "fix" the situation after a break up, but your efforts are better served elsewhere. Rather than give your teen dating advice, focus on expressing empathy. Say things like, "I'm here. How do you feel? You look like you're feeling this way."

The best thing you can do is help your teen directly face and overcome a break up. If your teen takes a cavalier approach by saying, "There's another person around the corner," they may be minimizing the importance of the previous relationship. Teens 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 are on the right path. If you help your kids build healthy interests and relationships, they will have other areas of enjoyment when a romantic relationship ends.

Try to avoid saying, "When this happened to me…" Kids often turn that off. If they want to hear about your teenage romantic relationships, they will likely ask. One of the best things you can ask yourself is, "How does my kid handle emotions? Can they problem-solve? Can they seek out help if they need it?" Then do what you can 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 dinner. Focus on spending quality time together. Encourage your teen to write or talk about it. You can offer another adult friend, older sibling, aunt or uncle or anyone your trust to give your teen dating advice — just as long as the communication happens.

Seeking help after your child's break up

After a break up, you should expect your teen to be more reactive. Over time, that should lessen, and you'll see them re-engage with their interests. If you see increasing symptoms of depression, lack of interest in normally pleasurable activities, social isolation, withdrawal or irritability that doesn't stop, you should seek help. If your teen comments about not being here or starts giving things away, that's cause for concern. If you start to ask yourself, "Do I need to get help?" you should get help. You're responding to a feeling, even if you don't quite know what it is. Safe2tell is a program throughout Colorado where you can anonymously report any threatening behavior that endangers your kids, their friends, family or community.

Modeling a healthy relationship for your kids

Your kid might not always listen to what you say, but they will probably see what you do. One of the most powerful things you can do as a parent is model the kind of relationship you want your kid to have. Showcasing open and warm communication, honesty, balance and other characteristics you value will go further than simply telling your child those things are important. And when your kids have questions about your relationship be ready to answer honestly.

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