Navigating Your Way Through Your Teen’s Romance
What I really wanted was my own phone line with my own phone number so I could talk to my boyfriend without my siblings teasing me.
I settled for an extension in my bedroom.
At least I wouldn’t have to stretch the phone cord across the kitchen and huddle on top of the washing machine behind the louvered doors anymore.
On the other side of the thin impression of privacy, my mother cringed at the threads of dialogue that she could make sense of. Finally with a phone in my room, while my parents naively believed me to be deep in slumber, I hid beneath my covers in the dark and talked to my boyfriend into the wee hours of night.
That was so 80s.
My two teenage sons don’t talk on the phone. They text. Unlike my mother who could hear segments of my side of conversations with cohorts, I have to decipher code and piece the back and forth back together, frustrated that the most coherent phrase I can make out is, “Ha ha, yea, ha, ha, ha.”
Cryptic messages from my sons’ love interests arrive at regular 30-second intervals. And if I’m honest with you and with myself, the whole girlfriend distraction really bothers me. Keeping my opinions private is just as hard now as it was when I nested myself on top of the washing machine chattering on the phone behind the louvered doors in the kitchen.
Love Relationships as a Developmental Task
Those louvered doors were the first in a series of ways that I began separating myself from my family.
Differentiation from parents and siblings is a normal developmental task for teenagers. They try on and awkwardly clomp around in adult roles like they once did in Mom or Dad’s oversized shoes.
“Add to this the hormonal changes and biological pressures of budding adulthood, but without the full frontal lobe development of a mature adult, and you get the crazy world of an adolescent,” says Elsbeth Martindale, PsyD, author of Throughout this gradual emancipation that hopefully ends with a responsible adult living independently, adolescents continue to require parental input and guidance.
“Desire for connection is natural, especially for teenagers,” says Renee Flippo, a pediatric nurse practitioner with The Center for Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Social media platforms like FaceBook thrive on young people’s drive for connectivity.
Teens are physiologically programmed to seek out romantic relationships. “The changes that take place in the body and mind through the course of puberty set the stage for attraction to the opposite sex,” says John Duffy, PsyD, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. In other words, the need to form bonds with people outside of the family unit has a biological basis.
A teenager’s realization that someone other than parents can care deeply for him or her aids in the process of establishing an identity apart from the family.
According to Georgina Hammock, Ph.D., associate professor and director of Augusta State University’s graduate program in psychology, teenage boys and teenage girls have about the same level of interest in engaging in romantic relationships, but Flippo points out that for adolescent girls, because of the way they are wired, these relationships can pique deeper emotions.
Courtship of Nurture
Environment also plays a role in influencing an adolescent’s beliefs about the importance of coupling. European cultures, for example, endorse adolescent pairings, while Asian cultures are less tolerant.
American children live in a media-dominated climate bombarding them with Ken and Barbie, Snow White pining for her prince and the theme that partnering based on beauty and devil-be-damned attitudes is highly valued. Teens are given the idea that involvement in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship implies status, attractiveness or normalcy.
“Quite often,” remarks Martindale, “the cultural, media and societal messages are louder and more frequent than the balancing or countering messages of parents.” Flippo says that communication between parent and child is key as adolescents try to make sense of it all.
Ultimately, intimate relationships in adolescence are an important aspect of a child’s development. Experts agree that these early romances affect expectations about future relationships, beliefs about oneself and behavior toward a significant other. It’s normal and healthy for their interest in romance to increase.
Beyond Checking Yes or No
Emotional intimacy, fostered by sharing personal information and spending time together, comprises a large part of a teenager’s romance. Parents worry, however, that the attachment will progress beyond conversation and a few kisses.
Hammock addresses this worry, saying, “A majority (of adolescents) agree with the statement that sexual intercourse is inappropriate for teenagers.” They also tend to believe that physical intimacy should be reserved for committed relationships.
Still, adolescents are very likely, according to Hammock, to have their first sexual experience with someone whom they are seeing steadily.
Parents should not ignore their children’s blossoming curiosity in physical expressions of affection. “Kids need to hear about sex and sexuality from their parents, and parents need to make it comfortable enough that the conversations can be ongoing and open,” says Duffy.
Parents can also head off temptation by encouraging their children to get together in groups of boys and girls, rather than one-on-one.
Additionally, inviting the boyfriend or girlfriend over for meals, game nights or to just hang out affords the young couple some semi-private interaction and offers the parents peace of mind.
A third way to protect your teenager from getting caught up in the moment is to discuss how decisions they make today can affect goals they have for the future. “Teenagers think in the here and now,” says Flippo, who advocates for discussions, not lectures, in which teens explore what they want for themselves and how risky behaviors might impact that.
Trouble in Paradise
For adults and teens alike, good partnerships bring out our best. Duffy has observed that many of his adolescent clients, when they are in the thrilling throes of young love, work harder in school, convey positive outlooks and pay closer attention to their appearance and personal hygiene.
But courtships aren’t always the bliss depicted in a clever commercial or on the Hollywood screen. Hammock cites a study revealing that up to a third of teenagers report victimization and/or aggression. And adolescents aren’t always willing to discuss these problems.
Martindale suggests that parents, particularly if they suspect trouble, create opportunities for the young couple to spend time together with the family or in the home, where parents can observe interactions without being intrusive. If the pair seems prone to frequent drama, arguing, name-calling or crying, parental guidance is in order.
Managing a relationship is hard work and requires competencies as yet undeveloped in adolescents. Teens who withdraw from their other friendships or outside interests, express pessimism and anger, develop a low threshold for frustration or slack off on schoolwork may also be sending out signals for help. Flippo urges parents to investigate if their child, particularly a girl, isolates him or herself, choosing to spend time with the significant other to the exclusion of all else.
Tearfulness and depression could also indicate that the relationship has ended. A break-up can be a very painful experience for a young person.
Flippo says the end of a boyfriend-girlfriend romance can be particularly devastating for teen girls. Parents may feel inspired to impart wisdom in hopes of minimizing the grief or at least putting it into perspective. Avoid dismissing a love relationship as “temporary,” says Duffy, who finds that teens register this as disrespectful. Martindale encourages parents to instead lend loads of comfort and to listen. “Trust that your child will learn valuable lessons about life and self-care through this experience,” she says. In addition, she discourages parents from trying to fix things, reminding them that this is an opportunity for their child to develop important skills necessary for adulthood and independence.
The teen years are a period of intense social, emotional and physical growth. Every choice, good or bad, results in learning and change. Where parents were once looked to for instruction, they are now used as support personnel.
Remembering back to their own early romances, says Martindale, helps parents tap into empathy and acceptance of their child’s naturally burgeoning search for true love. A first love interest is a milestone in a child’s life, like a first word or a first tooth, not to be diminished. “Teens need to know that romantic relationships can be powerful, soul-shaking experiences,” says Martindale.
Play your Valentine cards right as a parent and you will be named to the privileged position of Acting Consultant to Cupid. You may have to do it from the other side of a closed louvered door, but your child will be glad to know you’re there when he needs you.
Lucy Adams is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children.