How to help your kids navigate their first relationship
Teenagers get crushes, that’s just a fact. But as parents, it can raise a lot of questions about how to deal with teenage relationships.
Like when is an appropriate age for this to happen? How can you tell the difference between a cute teenage crush and a budding relationship? Are teenage relationships good or bad? And, do teenage relationships last?
The answer to most of these questions is, who knows? As parents, we can’t control our children’s emotions any more than we can predict the future.
Instead, focus on the elements you can control. These could be building trust with your child, fostering an honest and caring parent-child relationship, educating them about enthusiastic consent and sexual safety, and modelling positive relationships at home. We talked to Parent Coach and Professional Member of the Australian Association of Family Therapists, Rachel Schofield about how you can manage this tricky time.
Fostering trust and honesty with your child
From teaching your child to ride a bike to supporting them during their first period, having a positive and trusting relationship makes the process so much easier.
Your child is only likely to come to you with questions or concerns if your relationship is already in a good place. And how you react to their crush-related news will dictate how likely they are to continue confiding in you.
There’s a few things to remember when your child tells you they have a crush or a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Be sure to avoid teasing, using patronising phrasing or jumping straight into advice and ground rules, even if it’s your initial instinct.
Give yourself some time to process the news and play it cool. Ask non-judgmental questions and listen to what they want to share with you.
Enthusiastic consent 101
Your child is never too young to learn about consent. Even toddlers can understand what ‘stop’ means. For younger kids, consent conversations can happen around something as simple as tickling. Many parents now encourage their children to choose whether they wish to give hugs and kisses as greetings.
But even though these conversations are happening much more frequently than before, there is still a huge cultural issue in this arena.
When your child enters their first romantic relationship it’s a great idea to do a refresher on consent – or more importantly, enthusiastic consent.
But what does this mean? Basically, the idea that ‘no means no’ is not the sole focus anymore. No still means no, but other things also mean no – like silence, hesitation, intoxication, inability to give informed consent and more. So, anything that is less than an enthusiastic ‘yes’ is a no. And this can be applied to any interaction, from handholding to sex.
Make sure your tween or teen knows that they can refuse or withdraw consent at any time, and there’s nothing wrong with changing their mind mid-anything.
Hopefully, this will be irrelevant for your child’s first relationship. But you may also want to remind them that issues of consent extend to digital communications. Publishing or sharing private images and messages is not OK under any circumstances.
First relationships are a great time to think about what your child does and doesn’t know about the birds, bees and butterflies.
Whether your child is a tween or teen, having an open line of communication about sex is a good idea. The concept of having ‘the talk’ is largely outdated now – instead, experts encourage parents to have an open narrative about sex and reproduction in the home.
Speak openly about contraception, pregnancy, masturbation, libido, hormones, menstruation and even wet dreams. Basically, think of every topic your kids will not want to talk about and be prepared to go there.
It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but hugely important. With so much information and imagery online, your child needs to know they can come to you with any questions.
Modelling positive relationships at home
Children mimic what they see at home. One of the best ways you can support them in their first relationship is to model a positive, happy relationship in your own home.
Positive relationships aren’t just about prioritising quality time though. They are also about good conflict resolution, a fair share of decision making and general respect for each other.
Even if a child is raised with a violent, disrespectful, controling or bullying relationship in the home - they can still have excellent awareness of positive relationship dynamics though.
“All it takes is one adult that sees and acknowledges what's going on to make a difference. If a parent is stuck in a controlling relationship they can still help their children by being a sympathetic witness for their child acknowledging what is happening and affirming that it's wrong,” says Rachel
If any of these things are an issue in your home, or you’re concerned about your teen’s relationship, please seek professional support. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time for crisis support and advice.
Setting boundaries with teenage relationships
Setting boundaries is an important step, but how do you know what sort of boundaries to set?
It’s important to encourage them to continue hanging out with their friends and participating in their regular activities. They will probably be excited about their first crush, but try not to let their new relationship take over their lives.
You also need to create some ground rules around phone use, dates and supervision. These rules will depend on your own family culture, how old your child is and what you think is appropriate.
It’s also a good idea to get to know your child’s crush. If your child is likely to be spending time at their family’s home, it may be a good idea to understand their family dynamics. You could also find out how much supervision there will be when they are there.
“Contrary to popular belief, teens are naturally cooperative as long as they have a close connected relationship with their parents. If your teen isn't cooperative and reacts or shuts down when you want to set some reasonable boundaries, it's a sign to do some ground work on warming the relationship between you,” says Rachel.
Navigating breakups of teenage relationships
Inevitably, first relationships will come to an end and your child may be devastated. A good way to support your child is to simply accept, and acknowledge, their feelings as real and valid.
“We all know how good it feels to have a good cry with a friend who doesn't try to fix things or make it better. Just listening without offering advice is incredibly helpful. Your teen will ask you for help when they feel understood and listened to,” says Rachel.
- listen to their feelings with kindness and compassion
- give them space if they want it
- ask them how they want you to support them
- minimise their feelings because of their age
- tell them there are plenty of fish in the sea
- reach out to the other kid or their parents
If your child is the one initiating the break-up, talk to them about respectful ways to let their boyfriend or girlfriend know that it’s time to break-up. And remember, kids are resilient so just give them time.
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Rachel Schofield is a Parent Coach who uses her proven and practical tools to help parents compassionately and confidently navigate the challenges of raising children so they can build close and rewarding relationships with their children.
Reviewed by the healthylife Adviory Board June 2021