Health and Wellness
Each week, one of our community partners, Dr. Moe Gelbart generously volunteers his time to provide information for our community related to wellness. Dr. Gelbart is the Executive Director of Thelma McMillen Center in Torrance.
TEENAGERS IN LOVE
In a few weeks, it will be Valentine’s Day. Our children, even our little elementary schoolers, will be drawing hearts and sending love wishes to those around them. As parents we will delight in how cute all this is. But for some teenagers, the “love” connection goes way beyond February 14th, causing pause and concern for parents. What can a parent expect, and how should they deal with the news that their teenager is “in love”?
Adolescence, as we know, is a vulnerable time. It is a time when developmentally and biologically, teen brains are creating new hormones, emotions, drives, desires for individuation, and good decision making often lags behind emotional drives. It is a time when many teens experience their “first love”. As a parent, knowing how to deal with your child, how to guide them, and what limits to set can be very confusing and conflict producing. As adults, most of us have gone through romantic feelings and relationships and breakups, and we have a more informed perspective, but helping our children navigate through this experience can be difficult. As with most emotional issues, there are no easy answers or clear cut directions or rules. Thinking about the issue, communicating with your spouse/significant other, and being on the same page and having a game plan can help greatly. Here are some areas to ponder over.
1. At what age should teens be allowed to date? This requires you to have a definition of dating, and what you can tolerate at certain ages versus others. Criteria of spending time alone together, or identifying as boyfriend/girlfriend should be considered. How much control do you actually have, and what are the risks of trying to exercise too much control? I personally do not believe that a teen is emotionally ready for real dating until they are at least 16, and probably a bit older. More important, is having a discussion about what dating means and is, and understanding your child’s emotional readiness.
2. How much control should you exercise? It is well known that the more parents try and control their children’s emotional relationships with others, the more likely they are to experience resistance and push their children towards the very thing they would like to avoid. Think Romeo and Juliette. At the same time, parents cannot just sit back and totally allow their children to head down a painful path. Like most issues, the key is communication, and developing an open, validating, respectful ability to discuss issues. It is much easier to set limits and boundaries after one validates feelings.
3. How is the relationship influencing life and decision making? It is important to keep close tabs on your “in love” child, and make sure they are maintaining their goals and directions. Grades, extra-curricular activities, and time with friends should not be negatively affected. If things that were important begin to slide, parents need to step in as soon as possible, and help with understanding and planning. Make sure that being in a relationship does not overwhelm other areas of their life.
4. Have an honest talk with your teen about sex. They need to know about short term gratification and long term consequences. They need to understand about safeguarding their reputation,
internet and social media issues, disease and unwanted pregnancy, and how they can misperceive the meaning of certain actions. If possible, it is beneficial to talk to the parents of your child’s partner, and encourage them to have similar conversations.
5. Try and understand what is motivating their relationship. On some level, this is the most difficult of all, not just for teenagers, but for adults as well. Quite often, we are unaware of what needs are being met in a relationship, and whether these are healthy or unhealthy needs. If one feels insecure, if one feels abandoned by a parent, if one sees themselves as a people pleaser and rescuer, if one is co-dependent, if one experiences low self-esteem, a love relationship can artificially soothe those needs. However, that would not be the basis of a healthy relationship. Help your teen understand what a healthy relationship is, and how in a mutually satisfying relationship, each is allowed to be a strong individual and help make the other person achieve more of their potential.
6. Be particularly aware if your teen is in a relationship with an addictive person. As stated, such a relationship is born out of motives one is not aware of, but such a relationship could be very painful. Particularly vulnerable are children whose parents have a drug or alcohol problems. Statistics indicate that such children are highly likely to be drawn to a person with a substance abuse issue, often trying to unconsciously fix past issues through present relationship. The results are usually very troubling.
7. Don’t put all your hopes in geography. I have worked with many parents who feel that all will be fixed once their son/daughter go off to college, and the relationship runs its course due to distance. Many times this is the case, but often it is not. I have seen teens change their college plans, in order to be near their boyfriend/girlfriend, often at great personal expense. I have worked with parents who felt relieved when their daughter went away to college, and got away from the unmotivated directionless boyfriend, only to find out that he was moving to the city she was in to be with her.
There are many more things to consider, and this just grazes the tip of the iceberg. As with most issues with your teens, the antidote is communication, and having the ability to talk, trust, respect, and be honest. Remember, this is an area we all have personal experience in that we can draw upon.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center