Your teen comes home from school one day, starry-eyed and completely distracted. Uh-oh. She’s in love. How you wish you could return to the time when boys and girls yelled “Cooties!” and ran away lickety-split. Your teen’s sigh brings you back to the present. You remember what it was like to be in her shoes, but how do you deal with it from the other side?
The Good and the Bad
Every LDS adolescent knows the "no dating before sixteen" rule, but they don't know many of the whys behind it. Many of them would be surprised to know that research has proved this rule would benefit teens everywhere, not just those of the LDS faith.
In an article entitled "Dating and Romantic Experiences in Adolescence," psychologists Heather A. Bouchey and Wyndal Furman concluded that "adolescents who are involved with a romantic partner at a young age have higher rates of alcohol and drug use, delinquency, and behavioral problems, as well as lower levels of academic achievement." In addition to these consequences, Sarah Coyne, a Brigham Young University professor who studies adolescents, says that teens who date before sixteen are generally less imaginative and more often become victims of relationship abuse.
However, once teens reach "dating age," parents should encourage them to date often, since our expert says adolescents who date typically have a stronger self-image and tend to be more popular and more accepted.
Parents who struggle when a child suddenly abandons them for a new-found love will benefit from understanding the psychological aspects of dating. A 1999 study by Bonnie B. Dowdy and Wendy Kliewer found that teens who start dating find themselves in a completely new role, different from those of student, child, or friend. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is difficult for parents to accept because they still see the adolescent as a child. This same study revealed that conflict between parents and adolescents greatly increases when teens start dating--simply because parents have a difficult time adjusting to the teen's new role and priorities outside the family boundaries. If parents accept that their child is progressing and developing a different role in life, they can avoid some of these conflicts. How should parents react to this newfound independence? "It depends on the age of the child," Coyne says. "In general, you want to be supportive of your child and respectful of their wishes." One of the best things that parents can do to support their child is to make a sincere attempt to meet and form a relationship with their teen's boyfriend or girlfriend. If you invite them to family functions, you will be able to see how they interact and keep an eye on the relationship to make sure it's a healthy one.
The Big Talk
Even if you want to be supportive of your child's feelings, remember that you are still the parent. During this turbulent time, Coyne says, "Teens . . . need guidelines and boundaries. [Parents] shouldn't be afraid to make rules and discuss them with their teen."
Set aside a time to talk with your child. Make sure he or she knows that discussing the relationship is important. Ask your teen what qualities he or she especially likes about their dating partner, what makes that person special, and what they enjoy doing together. Make sure your child knows that you care. Finally, ask your child, "What are some rules you have set for yourself?" and "Here are some rules that we, as your parents, feel are important." Helping them choose their own (reasonable) dating rules means that they will take those guidelines seriously.
"If parents tend to act like 'it's my way or the highway,' teens will usually rebel," says Coyne. "Try to understand and respect the intensity of your teen's feelings. At the end of the day, everyone has their own free will, but if you respect them and are aware of their feelings, they are far more likely to listen to you."
Trusting your teen and trying to understand his or her feelings is all well and good, but what about when it comes to sexual intimacy? Some parents wonder how to correctly address this. After all, children do have their own free will, but shouldn't parents do everything in their power to stop their children from making a monumental mistake? Surprisingly, research has shown that too much control over teens can actually increase the likelihood of sexual behavior instead of lowering it. Coyne suggests parents be open with their teens and explain the physical, spiritual, and emotional benefits of waiting until after marriage for sexual intimacy; this understanding of the principles behind the Church's standards can be very beneficial. In fact, all parents should do this whether their teens are contemplating a sexual relationship or not.
Make sure that your teen is fully aware of the values and beliefs of the Church, along with your own feelings about them. "Our teens will be more likely to make good decisions when they understand the reasons behind a certain principle. Keeping lines of communication open, trusting and respecting your teen, and showing moderate amounts of control will go much further in preventing sexual behavior than locking [teens] in their bedrooms," continues Coyne. A parent is usually most effective when working as a support and guide rather than a dictator.
Maintain the Parent-Teen Relationship
Coyne stresses the importance of keeping the parent-teen relationship intact before, during, and after a romantic relationship. "It is most important to have a good relationship with your teenager. You may battle about some things, but make sure you maintain that good relationship." She comments on the importance of picking your battles--that parents shouldn't argue with their children about every little thing in their children's lives, because that weakens the relationship. If you choose your battles wisely, your children will be more likely to respect your concerns about their relationships.
Love and Balance
Balance is difficult for teens who believe that they are "in love." Yes, they can still walk straight, but their lives tend to be a bit lopsided--weighing heavily toward their newfound relationship. It can be frustrating for parents to see their previously straight-A student suddenly get their first B, but "a little of that is natural, and you can't stop it completely," says Coyne. To get around the single-mindedness of your infatuated teen, encourage the boyfriend or girlfriend to spend time with the family, participating in scripture study, family home evening, and family activities. Your child won't resent you for making them spend time away from the relationship, and you will still have them at those important family times.
Additionally, Coyne says parents should facilitate activities with other friends. Every so often, hand your kid twenty bucks and say, "You should go to a movie with so-and-so today."
In this day and age, teens often date young and date seriously. However, the Church encourages teens to wait until they are college-aged to start dating exclusively. President Gordon B. Hinckley said to the youth, "It is better, my friends, to date a variety of companions until you are ready to marry. Have a wonderful time, but stay away from familiarity. . . . Steady dating at an early age leads often to tragedy. Studies have shown that the longer a boy and girl date one another, the more likely they are to get into trouble" ("A Prophet's Counsel and Prayer for Youth," Ensign, Jan. 2001).
It is difficult for many LDS youth to follow the counsel of Church leaders when the world (including friends) influences them to do the opposite. Many teens do date exclusively. Parents often feel at a loss as to how to encourage their child to group date rather than become emotionally intimate with one person. "Sitting down, and finding out where your [dating teen] is coming from can really help," says Coyne. "Some parents make a rule that they can continue to see that one person, but they have to go on a date once a month with someone else. Other parents have said that their teen can only go on group dates. Some parents really put their foot down and try to make their teen break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend." This last option, however, should be used cautiously. Unless you think the relationship is unhealthy, try counsel rather than force.
Dealing with the Breakup
Typical high school relationships last from four to six months, so parents need to be prepared for the end of the relationship--and the end of the world, as your teen might perceive it. Coyne encourages parents to be respectful of their teen's loss. Even though you, as an experienced adult, know that Mr. or Ms. Right will come along later, it's hard for a teen to see into the future when the present feels so hopeless.
Coyne suggests, "Give your teen some extra one-on-one time. Take them out to dinner, and let them talk about it." What you don't want to do, says Coyne, is have an "I told you so" attitude. Parents can help their teens most by listening to their feelings and letting their children know they are loved, through both words and actions. If your daughter is feeling down, flowers from Mom and Dad might brighten her day. Sons, on the other hand, might prefer to go see that new action movie.
Whether you found "The One" at sixteen and are married to that person today, or if you had your heart broken at a young age, you've had experiences like your teen is having now. You know that love and support are the things your teen really needs. Their romantic experiences are very real and important to them, so they should be important to you as well.