The road between childhood and adolescence can be a minefield filled with exhilaration, insecurity, and uncertainty. The highs are wonderfully high and the lows are painful in new and sometimes complicated ways. Perhaps no experience exemplifies this more than a teen’s first romantic relationship. The first time that your son opens his heart to someone outside of his family he is inviting in all the thrill and chaos that new relationships can entail. And he is inviting you as his parent to take a front-row seat on that emotional rollercoaster.
In my experience as a student advisor, one of the best organizations that helps young people understand healthy relationships is the One Love Foundation, whose mission is to help young adults work toward healthy friendships and romantic relationships while understanding the warning signs of unhealthy or toxic relationships.
Whether your son embarks on his first romantic relationship at 13 or 17, there are things that you can do as a parent in that front-row seat to help support him in developing healthy relationships.
Encourage Authentic Interests
His first serious romantic relationship will change your son. He will be seeking the approval and esteem of someone outside his family and so he may start to change his appearance or interests to fit into the life of someone else in a way that he has never done before. The teen years are full of exploration and it’s helpful to be supportive of your son trying new things, even if those things are the idea or influence of his new partner. It’s important for parents, though, to encourage authentic exploration. Ask your son about his new interest in hiking or tennis or cooking. Encourage him to appreciate it for what he gets out of the activity, not just because someone else likes it. By encouraging your son to be authentic in his interests you can help him to understand that relationships aren’t successful because couples do everything together, rather they are successful when couples can support each other in their endeavors while giving each other space to explore interests on their own. Parents should step in more firmly when they see a new relationship having a negative impact on their child. If grades start to slip or negative behaviors emerge, point those out to your son with as little judgment as possible and help him take steps to balance his new relationship with the rest of his obligations. Allowing space in a relationship is a healthy practice from the very beginning.
It is important that he takes the lead and that your interest remains observant rather than invested. Remember that this is a new relationship for your son of which you are not a part, so it is important to ask thoughtful questions without judgment or involvement. Oftentimes teenagers can feel even subtle pressure from their parents to be more serious than they are in a relationship or to stay in a relationship that has run its course when their parents also have a friendship with their significant other or the family of their significant other. It’s important that your son knows that he and his partner are the co-owners of this relationship and not their families. You want to ask your son how he is feeling and make sure that he knows he can always talk with you about what is going on in his relationship, but it is equally important that you emphasize that your loyalty is to him and his growth as a person. Your support is not for his relationship and not for his partner but for him alone. Knowing that he has you in his corner without judgment and expectation can free him to make the choices best for him without worrying about what you think.
Encourage a balance of the digital and in-person aspects of the relationship. As many teen relationships begin through gaming, Snapchat, or Instagram, it’s important to remind teens that getting along with someone is as important in real life as it is digitally. If they are comfortable communicating digitally, they should feel as comfortable in person. Make sure to talk with your son about caution when he is sharing personal details with someone who he only knows online and help facilitate safe and comfortable in-person meetings.
Talk About Healthy Relationships
Talk to your son about what makes a healthy relationship. Trust, honesty, respect, kindness, and fun are all characteristics that help make a relationship successful. Talk about times in your relationships when these have been especially important. Talk about times when their absence had a negative impact. Teenage relationships should be fun. While your son should be supportive of his new partner, he should not be the sole emotional support of his partner and he should not feel responsible for “fixing” his partner. Make sure that your son knows that a comfortable pace for both partners is an important indicator of a healthy relationship. Help him to be as in-tune to what his partner feels and shares as he is with his own feelings.
Just as a comfortable pace is an important indication of a healthy relationship so too are fair expectations. Your son may find that his feelings are stronger than his new partner or vice versa. It is important to talk with your son about respecting where his partner is in the progression from friend to significant other and that those feelings are not a contract. People change and so do their feelings and they are entitled to those changes just as your son is. Often boys can magnify a rejection or can perceive a rejection when what they are experiencing is just the natural cycle of feelings in a new relationship. Helping your son to keep his romantic emotions in balance with the rest of his emotions is a good reminder that a romantic relationship is just one of many ways to connect with people and feel love and support.
When the breakup happens, show him love and forward momentum. If his heart is broken, you want to comfort him and continue to help him stay engaged with school, sports, family, friends, and all the other wonderful things that he still has in his life. It’s instinctive to be protective and maybe overly so when you see your son in pain but remember that his partner is also a teen just trying to figure out how to be in a relationship. It usually takes a long time and many relationships before you find a lasting partnership, so this is likely new territory for them both. As much as it might feel good to bad mouth the person who broke your son’s heart, do your best to refrain. You want to model what it means to be compassionate and kind even when someone hasn’t shown him the same compassion and kindness. And you never know, they could be back together in a week.
Relationships will always take work to be successful. Laying the groundwork early with the framework for healthy relationships can help guide him through the challenging relationships yet to come in his life. Your best advice will always be what you have shown your son his whole life - that when you treat people with love and kindness, love, and kindness will come back to you.
For more information about One Love, visit their website and share their resources with the teens in your life.