Suddenly, your 13-year-old son is getting phone calls, texts and even in-person visits from giggling teen girls. Or perhaps your 15-year-old daughter picks out a scandalously short skirt for the big party her friend is planning. Or your 12-year-old daughter announces over dinner that she's got a boyfriend now.
Prenatal baby classes never prepared you for this! Parents often freeze when it comes to topics related to love and sexuality. But your children need parental guidance here just as in any other arena of life.
"Your child is going to get a sex education and be sexually active; the only question is with whom and when," says Amy Miron, co-author with her husband, Charles Miron, of How to Talk with Teens About Love, Relationships, & S-E-X. "If you believe that sexual behavior should only occur in an emotionally committed relationship, you need to communicate that. . . . Inoculate your kids with your values."
But don't jump into lecture mode. Nothing closes a teenager's ears like a parent dumping a load of information, morals and instructions all at once. Instead, share your feelings and relevant factual information, and then listen while your child responds.
"It should be a dialogue, not a monologue," says Miron, a Baltimore-based sex therapist and educator certified by the American Association of Sexuality. "Listen to your teen and don't be horrified if your teen says something that's 180 degrees the opposite."
It's important to control your reaction, whether to the flirtatious teen girls, short skirt or instant boyfriend. Rather than jumping to conclusions or laying down edicts, encourage your child to explain what the situation means to them and share what information they already have about it.
Be an Ask-Able Parent
"The ultimate goal is to be an ask-able parent," says Robbye Fox, a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. "You want to be approachable. You want your kids to feel like they can come to you. To do that, you have to watch your reactions."
You may find that your teen son has zero romantic interest in the love-crazy girls, preferring to shoot hoops or play video games with his buddies. Boys typically reach puberty later, so when the girls are hormonally charged at 12 or 13, boys are somewhat unaware. Or you may learn that a "boyfriend" in middle school is a status symbol rather than an actual relationship with conversation and activities.
"It does serve a purpose in their development," Fox says. "Ask the open-ended questions: 'What do you think about that? What do you think is going on?' "
Pop culture and media can provide a jumping-off point to talk about relationships and sexuality, whether it's a provocative Super Bowl advertisement or a Glee episode with a racy plot line. Help your teen expand her vocabulary of love to include infatuation, chemistry and crushes as well as the kind of love you'd find in a long-term adult relationship.
"Love takes time. You don't fall in love. You fall in a swimming pool. You fall in a [hole]," says Miron. "Love may grow. It requires knowledge of self, knowledge of other, mutual respect, trust and time. You can't have a minute in 58 seconds, no matter how much you want it."
Respect Your Child
Demonstrate respect for your child's feelings and ideas, no matter how they may differ from yours. You can gather more information about your teen's friends and school environment if you refrain from being judgmental.
"Parents oftentimes put down first romantic relationships. They demean it with terms like puppy love," Miron says. "It's a very bad idea. It's disrespectful to the child and the child's feelings."
If your child is reluctant to engage in a conversation about such a personal topic, try subtle conversation openers or ask for her help in understanding her world. Bring it up when you're in the car or out for a walk to avoid the intensity of direct eye contact.
Fox sometimes asks her children-ages 16, 19 and 22-to give her two city blocks of walking together to discuss a sensitive issue. "Put an end line on it so the kids can mentally say, 'I can deal with this for 15 minutes,' " she suggests.
Of course, respect for your child doesn't mean she can do whatever she wants. It's important to clarify specific guidelines on behavior and your expectations for your teen. For instance, you might agree on no bedroom visits or that the door stays open, no unsupervised parties or hanging out, technology limits and curfews.
"Kids are going to do what they're going to do, but that doesn't mean you give them full access," Fox says. "People are going to speed on the roads, but it doesn't mean that we don't have speed limits. It doesn't mean that we don't talk to kids about the consequences."
Refuse to let conflicts over limits be about whether you trust your child or not. You can always state a value: "I believe this specific behavior is inappropriate for someone who is 15 or 16 years old."
You will also want to give information about sexuality, sexually transmitted infections, contraception and the importance of emotional and physical intimacy developing at the same pace-rather than rushing into a physical relationship too soon. Another important topic to raise is how to behave in a relationship, how to be a good partner and the limits of technology-mediated communications, i.e., through social media or texting.
"You're going to remember the first time you're sexually active with another human being for the rest of your life. Make sure you're going to feel good about what you remember," Miron says. "These are the moral values that parents have got to teach their children."