From kindergarten crushes to teen love, relationships provide important learning opportunities for children.
The Beatles were wrong when they said, “All you need is love,” says Marilyn Maxwell, M.D., professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Saint Louis University. Teens also need their parents to provide guidance and boundaries when it comes to dating and relationships. “Some parents feel uncomfortable creating any type of boundaries for their children, particularly as they get older,” Maxwell says. “But contrary to popular belief, kids do feel safer and more secure when they have boundaries.”
Maxwell, who is a contributing author to both Questions Kids Ask About Sex: Honest Answers for Every Age and Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care, says that talking with children about relationships is something that should start long before the first date. “Parents need to model good relationships for their children,” Maxwell says. “When parents treat each other with respect, it’s not only good for the parents’ relationship, but it also shows children how to behave and what to expect from a relationship in return.” Parents should also help their children develop realistic expectations for relationships. This includes talking about qualities that truly matter in a relationship, such as shared values, mutual respect, easy conversation and shared interests.
“It doesn’t come down to one big conversation. Conversations about relationships and sex should occur over many teachable moments,” Maxwell emphasized. “To really get through to kids, parents need to provide consistent and regular messages about their expectations, wishes and goals for the child.” Nowhere is consistency more important than in conversations about sex. “Some parents feel uncomfortable talking to their teens about sex for a number of reasons,” Maxwell says. “Perhaps they’re embarrassed or feel hypocritical because they themselves did not wait until marriage.”
Some parents are hesitant because they feel it’s inevitable. “But I tell parents that it is so important to talk to your children about sex starting even at a young age and certainly more as they get older. Parents need to share their values and expectations with their children. It’s not inevitable that a teen will become sexually active, particularly if you let them know how you expect them to act.” Rather than condemning premarital sex, Maxwell suggests telling children about the benefits of abstaining, such as preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Premarital sex can also negatively affect both the relationship and individuals involved. For many people, waiting until marriage is a matter of faith and morals.
More than ever, teens will need their parents to provide guidance and boundaries when they are ready to start dating. Maxwell offers the following tips for parents:
1. Set the ground rules and stick to them. Guidelines can range from curfews to acceptable activities. Some parents also require the date to first spend time getting to know the family.
2. Consider your child’s maturity level. Many parents set a certain age, say 16, for dating, but not all children mature at the same rate.
3. Encourage group activities rather than solo dates, especially for younger teens.
4. Incorporate dates into family activities. This time should not be used to drill the date, but to get to know them and have fun together.
5. Be involved in your child’s plans. Know where they are going, with whom and when they will be home.
6. Provide supervision. Leaving children alone for hours or not requiring accountability is a set-up for undesirable behavior.
7. Watch for dangerous behaviors such as rollercoaster emotions, neediness, isolation, verbal disrespect or physical abuse.
8. Pick your battles. Don’t forbid a relationship unless it is abusive, controlling or isolating. Maxwell also says teens shouldn’t date someone more than two years older because of the maturity differences.
9. If your child has already had sex, tell them that it is never too late to start making good decisions and encourage them to make a commitment to wait until marriage.
10. Loosen up on the reins. While parents need to set appropriate boundaries, it’s important to entrust your teen with increasing responsibilities to manage themselves.
From kindergarten crushes to teen love, relationships provide important learning opportunities for children. By talking openly and honestly with your child and providing appropriate guidance and boundaries, parents can help their children successfully navigate the world of love, Maxwell says.
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