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Published on February 14, 2019

Supporting your child in their first relationshipSupporting your child in their first relationship

Since the days of Romeo and Juliet and earlier, teen dating has been a complicated thing. As parents, one of our most important jobs is to set the stage for our children to have healthy adult partnerships by helping them navigate the highs and lows of their first dating relationships.

“Just like kids need sex education and financial education, they also need relationship education,” said Bart L. Main, Jr., MD, a psychiatrist at Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health in Hyannis, who specializes in adolescent issues.

There’s no one ideal age for teens to begin exploring relationships, he said.

“Historically, people are invited into adult life at about age 13 with bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs or confirmation,” he said. “The notion is that they are capable of moral decision making. If we take that perspective, then that would be the time when we'd expect people to be capable of relationships, too.

“But in the past, people were not uncommonly married during their mid-teenage years. Today there's a much more gradual approach to relationships that we should expect kids to take, compared to 200 years ago.

“Kids will often say that they're going with somebody or they're seeing somebody or they’re ‘hanging out’ at much younger ages. They may have a crush on someone even in early elementary school. But, typically, interest in dating starts to happen with hormonal maturation, which for girls is at about age 11 and for boys it may be 13.”

Parents should help their children understand that there’s a very gradual slope of deepening intimacy, he said.

“It starts with texting each other and holding hands. It gradually moves on to hugging and maybe kissing and sharing deep secrets. Sexual intercourse is way down the line. There's a lot more to relationships than lust,” he said.

Different Types of Intimacy

If you have a mental block about talking about these things, Dr. Main said the best approach is to take a matter-of-fact approach.

“You teach your kids how to brush their teeth and how to wipe their behinds,” he said, “You have to teach them about the differences between the levels of intimacy of holding hands versus kissing and petting versus having sex.”

Part of the discussion should be about different types of intimacy.

“There's your deep friendship where you can tell the person everything that you ever thought. There's having fun together and enjoying each other’s company. There's sexual intimacy. Some people would postulate that there is spiritual intimacy, where you feel connected at some very deep level to this person at a soul level.”

Teenagers who are exploring these feelings can feel overwhelmed because this is all new to them, so parents have to help them find some perspective.

“When kids say that they’re in love with someone, I ask them, ‘Do you think that you'll get married?’ And they say, ‘No, how silly,’” said Dr. Main. “Then I say, "You mean you’re expecting that you will break up?’ And all of a sudden, they get really serious. ‘Well, actually yes, logically, first relationships very seldom are permanent, so I have to recalibrate my expectations. Knowing that we’re going to break up someday, how intimate do I want to get now?’ It gives them a lot to think about.”

Many parents find that these conversations happen more easily late in the evening or during drives in the car, when teens may let their guard down a little, he said.

“Another good tip is to be self-revelatory. ‘I'm so glad that I met your mother because we have this great relationship, don’t you think?’ And the kid may say, ‘Well, maybe so but you still argue about money.’ So, you can talk about the quality of relationships and what you look for in relationships, that it’s a multi-faceted thing.”

A conversation about relationships also can be a chance to reinforce some guidelines about drugs and alcohol.

“A lot of people are pretty tense about relationships, especially as they become more sexual,” said Dr. Main. “They use drugs and alcohol to help themselves be more comfortable. My pitch is that that’s a big mistake. People need to be in their best right mind when they engage in deeper levels of intimacy.”