When there are no clear boundaries, difficulties arise, writes Richard Hogan
Your first kiss, a combination between delirium and despair. The awkward swirling tongue, the mechanical movement of mouth with eyes wide shut - praying it would all end without injury.
Rejoicing hysterically as you recount events to friends. The secret feelings of pride and terror that accompany surviving a traumatic event.
Well, that’s my recollection. But I remember going home that night thinking something had changed. Hoping someone would notice, so I could shout about my journey into the world of young Lothario. But I was only greeted by my mother’s usual declarations of love, no questions were asked.
No one had noticed the shift (excuse the pun) in my teenage trajectory.
We all remember our first kiss. And we probably all remember the multitude of tumbling thoughts we had around who we were becoming and what that kiss meant.
Parents often ask me how to approach talking to their children about a relationship they may be in? Or parents tell me that their child is too young for that sort of thing and they have no interest in it, but when I talk to their child, separately, they often describe with great passion the depths of their feelings for a girl/boy they are currently dating.
It is of paramount importance that parents communicate with their child about their merging romantic interests.
Being a father of three young girls, I know it is something that I think about quite often. What will I do when my daughter turns up with some young James Dean type character leaning against the doorframe, uttering some new language? I know what my immediate impulse will be!
However, the reality is, if she hasn’t been taught to value and respect herself at that age, my reaction will have little impact on her dating world.
Modelling behaviour: If we want our children to have successful relationships in the future we must model what such a relationship looks like. When children grow up in a family where there is dysfunctionality and abuse, research shows that the chances of seeking out a similar relationship in their adult life increases dramatically.
Define what a healthy relationship looks like: It is very important that we teach our children what is acceptable and not acceptable behaviour in a relationship. The more they know, the more they will be able to spot warning signs. In a healthy relationship both parties respect and encourage each other to succeed. In an unhealthy relationship, there is suspicion and jealousy, which can often lead to far more destructive behaviours. We must tell our children how to spot these warning signs.
Boundaries: Be clear with the boundaries you have for the relationship. For example, if you don’t want them up in the room with the door closed - you have to clearly state this and explain why. Often, when there are no clear boundaries, difficulties can arise.
Gender inclusive language: When we assume the gender that our children will want to date we can put unknown expectations on that child which can impact their mental health. If they are not attracted to the opposite sex and we assume they are, we can put incredible pressure on them and make them feel different and wrong for how they feel. Saying something like ‘are you interested in finding a boyfriend or a girlfriend?’ or ‘have you met anyone you find attractive?’ That way you are not putting pressure on your child to live up to something they think you want. That pressure can have devastating consequences for the entire family and relieving it with gender-neutral language could be one of the most significant conversations you have.
Respect: When you engage your child in a conversation about the relationship they are in, make sure it is done in a respectful and non-obtrusive manner. One parent I met told me that her child had stopped talking to her after she found out she had been reading her diary. While we want to know what is going on for our child we must do it in a way that is mutually respectful. The more your child perceives that you are respectful of their feelings and thoughts the more they will talk to you about those feelings.
As parents, we might often feel that if we close our eyes and hang on, our children will navigate the world of teenage dating without too much calamity. However, unlike that first kiss, we must open our eyes and engage our children in a respectful conversation about relationships. We must tell them about the differences between online explicit images (which they will undoubtedly have viewed) and intimate caring relationships.
Our job, as a parent, is to stand with them, through this exciting and challenging time but also to make sure that they have developed the ability to make the right decision when no one is watching.