Valentine’s Day is coming up … a time when couples share and celebrate their mutual affection. But for teenagers who are new to romantic relationships, or who might be feeling left out or rejected, this can be a challenging time.
How can parents help their child navigate through his or her first serious crush, budding relationship or even rejection? We asked Melissa Faith, Ph.D., a board-certified specialist in child and adolescent psychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, for some advice.
As parents see their teenagers entering their first relationships, what should they keep in mind, and how involved should they be?
As kids enter puberty, they’re suddenly experiencing a rush of hormonal influences and more intense social situations. If they’re exploring a new relationship, this is often the first time a child experiences this level of emotion. Letting your child know it’s OK and normal to be hopeful and excited, and also, at times, sad or hurt—those are important messages. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not harmful.
I encourage parents to remember that their teens may be developing a new set of skills while simultaneously solidifying their identity in their social and romantic relationships. As a parent, the most important things are to be there to support them, model good relationship skills, and help them figure out how to behave in their relationships in a way that is consistent with their values. Ideally, kids will have seen their parents cope with some intense emotions, including involving conflict and disagreement, but also have healthy and successful relationships.
How much privacy should a child have in his or her relationship?
It depends on both the child and on the family value system. While romantic relationships in and of themselves are not good or bad, different families have different values about how old their children should be before they date, or before there is physical contact of a romantic nature.
When it comes to privacy, the child’s development, maturity, and past behavior will play important roles in their access to privacy. The most important thing is clear communication about parents’ expectations, values, rules and privacy allowance. Although you are not required to provide your child more privacy than makes you comfortable, I do recommend being open and honest with your child about their privacy and letting them know if you will be checking their cell phones or computers. I also recommend that parents set up a system with their young teens so that parents always have their young teens’ social media passwords and so that parents have a clear opportunity to talk about online safety with their child.
What if a parent is concerned their child is making poor decisions while in a relationship?
Adolescents are not mini versions of adults. Their prefrontal cortex—which is the front part of the brain responsible for planning, and also responsible for risk and for impulse control—that part of the brain is not fully developed until the early 20s.
So we’re dealing with 15- or 16-year-olds who are having these intense feelings of love and adoration, conflict, and physical attraction—with a brain that’s not yet fully capable of understanding risk. It’s almost unfair to expect them to not make some missteps. But better to experience them while they’re under a caring parent’s tutelage, rather than do it all on their own in their early 20s, without that close safety net at home. Because heartbreak is a normal part of growing up, I urge parents to model appropriate romantic relationship behaviors and have open conversations with teens about how to handle conflict; however, one of the many difficult parts of parenthood is also allowing your child to experience the emotional pain that is often inherent in broken and/or changing relationships.
That said, although normal heartbreak is usually healthy and safe, parents should be on the lookout for abusive behaviors or unsafe risk-taking behaviors. If you believe your child is involved in an abusive relationship or is taking unsafe risks, it is completely reasonable for parents to help their child set clear boundaries that are consistent with family values and safety. If that doesn’t work, it is also OK for parents to bring their child to a mental health professional for help.
How can you help your child deal with rejection?
A parent’s first reaction is often to “save” their child. Parents know what that emotional pain feels like, and they don’t want their children to experience that. But rather than jumping into problem-solving and “fixing” it, I urge parents to first validate emotions and to listen. Don’t try to make them feel better at first. Give words to what your child is feeling. Talk about how sad it is. Talk about how they might feel disappointed or crushed or devastated. Give value to what they’re saying, even if they seem disproportionately upset about what seems like a short-lived relationship.
Only after the child has experienced that fully and is accepting those emotions is it sometimes appropriate for a parent to offer a different perspective to the child. Even then, I’d recommend doing it with permission. Saying to your child, “I have some other thoughts about this. Would it be OK if I shared them with you?” You might offer up personal experiences, what healthy things you did to cope, and if there were any unhealthy things you did that you’d like your child not to do, what you learned from those experiences.
How does social media intensify or magnify a child’s experience?
These days, when there is a break-up, often it’s a very public event. Word travels quickly, and people might comment in a way that’s not supportive or in a way that is downright hurtful. If your child is hurt by a relationship issue that wound up on social media—have an honest conversation with him or her about coping with that. Talk through how or if he or she should respond. Is your child sad or embarrassed that everyone knows the relationship ended? Has he or she done something regrettable to somebody else? Sometimes deciding to take a step back from social media for a while is in order, and that could be a collaborative decision that the whole family might even consider doing together.
Always talk with your child. It’s important to have open dialogue around what’s appropriate online, what’s valued and accepted in your family versus what is not, and what safe behavior looks like.
When should a parent step in or seek help for the child?
If a child is just experiencing intense emotions, it’s healthy to allow your child to experience these. But if you see changes in grades, in sleep or appetite, in the desire to be with friends, in participation in extracurricular activities, or severely depressed mood, those are times to seek a professional evaluation.
What’s the most important thing we can do for our children in regards to their relationships?
We want to give our children opportunities to learn what makes for healthy relationships, including the right coping skills and conflict resolution skills, when they’re still young and in a safe environment. That includes watching their parents honoring their own emotions, honoring excitement, honoring love, honoring sadness, and being able to express themselves about those things when they need to. With good modeling and good listening from their parents, children will be more likely to experience healthy and gratifying relationships as they move into adulthood.