Everyone, at every age, deserves healthy, positive relationships. For teens who are just starting out, it’s not always easy to know what that means. Dr. Preeti Sandhu, pediatric psychologist, shares ways to help your teen navigate the dating world and be their own advocate for healthy, fulfilling relationships.
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1. Talk openly about healthy relationships.
Dating builds social skills and emotional growth. If your teen has an interest in dating someone, approach the topic with an open mind and curiosity. Here are some things you can say:
- First dates can—and do—feel awkward. That’s okay!
- Relationships of all kinds should feel good and safe.
- Tell me about him/her/them.
- What is their family like?
- What do the two of you have in common?
- What do you like to talk about with them?
These curious, non-judgmental statements and questions will help establish a mutual relationship built on trust when they begin dating.
2. Show an interest in their day.
Fill the silence on the ride to or from practice or school! You might have to plant the seed, but let them know you are there to listen and are interested in supporting their relationship. Try questions that focus on these pillars of healthy relationships:
- Honesty—you are truthful with each other.
- Trust—you can communicate feeling without worrying about making the other person angry.
- Respect— you respect each other.
- Equality—both opinions matter in the relationship.
- Communication—you are supportive, even when there are disagreements.
- Boundaries—you both allow time to spend with other friends and family.
- Consent—you both agree on the next move and you can change your mind and say no.
3. Respect your teen’s privacy.
This can be challenging because your first instinct as a parent is to protect your child and part of that means being in the know. But only you have a sense of your values and your teen’s maturity level. With that in mind:
- Keep tabs, but don’t listen in on calls.
- Offer your teen a ride into town with their date, but resist the urge to “chaperone.”
- Open your home to your teen’s new interest whether dinner or a casual meetup.
This way, you can get a sense of their relationship and show your support.
4. Encourage them to set their own boundaries in a relationship.
Ask your teen if they feel independent in their relationship and remind them that privacy is important.
Teens know their phones have the ability to track location, and many teens are open to sharing passwords with their partners. But encourage them to do a gut check and ask if these actions are truly necessary. Remind them they can have a strong relationship even if they choose not to share whereabouts and personal details.
5. Create space and offer your shoulder.
This can be tricky because they may want more space than a shoulder, but it’s important to show you’re there for them through good and bad. When they do want to open up to you, make sure you’re fully present and that you listen without interruptions and with an open mind.
6. Establish some safety rules.
Tell your teen you don’t intend to shadow their dating life, but make it clear that you expect them to follow basic, agreed-upon safety rules. These can include:
- Setting a time limit for online dating because limiting screen time is a healthy decision, even in the era of COVID. (Try a digital detox!)
- Establishing a curfew ahead of time that works for the whole family.
- Leaving you with a phone number of a reliable adult, if they are attending a house gathering.
7. Have conversations about risky situations.
Ask the family to share their perspective about topics like sexual activity, drug abuse and alcohol consumption. If your teen finds themselves facing a challenging situation:
- Let them fall back on you as an excuse to remove themselves from something uncomfortable.
- Acknowledge there is a problem and remind your teen they are not alone.
- Listen first, then work as a team to figure out how to tackle the situation.
It’s okay to admit you don’t have an answer, as long as you stay by their side.
8. Talk to your teen about the warning signs of abuse.
Tell them about the red flags to watch out for:
- Name-calling or put-downs
- Apologizing to others for their partner’s behavior
- Constant checking in and demanding to know their partner’s whereabouts
- Checking phone, email or social media without permission
- Explosive outbursts, temper or mood swings
- Any form of physical harm, including non-consensual sexual relations
- Possessiveness or controlling behavioral like only spending time together
You may also want to be honest with your teen about these facts on dating violence which are publicly available:
- Across the country, one in three teens report being hurt by their partner—physically, sexually or emotionally.
- In Connecticut alone, 17% of high school students report being emotionally abused by their partner and 8% report being physically abused (source: the Connecticut Department of Public Health).
9. Trust your gut as a parent and look for any changes.
Here are some telltale signs your teen may be in a dangerous relationship:
- Isolation or decreased social interaction with the family and from friends
- Any change in behavior or mood
- Changes in school performance
- Sleep disruptions or nightmares
- Difficulty focusing on tasks