Navigating Romantic Relationships with Teens

Posted by Ty Fischer on Oct 26, 2015 4:11:20 PM


As children grow older they pass through phases or ways of relating to the opposite sex. First, they really don't understand the differences. Boys and girls might have different interests, but they all might play kickball at recess without much comment. In the middle grades, however, the stage that I like to call "cooties" kicks in. Parents might think that this phase is very challenging because boys and girls really end up feeling very awkward around each other. Finally, however, the "cooties" phase passes and the opposite sex becomes a topic of interest and fascination. Everyone starts paying more attention to his or her appearance and lunchroom seating--which once looked as if there was a gulf fixed between the boys and girls--starts to become more mixed and the conversation becomes more animated. This phase, where boys and girls start to like each other, can be a challenging time for families. Here are a few ideas to help you as a parent navigate this time effectively and help you parent your child toward fulfilling and responsible relationships with the opposite sex.

First, I need to be honest about the context of my advice. I run an academic institution. We have few romantic relationships at Veritas. Some of this is by design, some of this is required. Our students spend a lot of time discussing issues and arguing with each other. By the time they reach the "interested in the opposite sex phase" they often react to the students in their classes like brothers and sisters. Parents have actually noticed this dearth of romance. One famously said to me, "Shouldn't we encourage them to date more?" (I bet I am the only educator in the world to hear this line!) So our curriculum is designed to build friendships that are not romantic. We also require students to be engaged in our academic community and to avoid behaving in ways that harms the community. When we sit down to discuss an issue, if you are only interested in what one special person says or if you only want to talk with one person, our community is harmed. Our Dean of Students actually has conversations with students when he feels that their affection is a distraction. At school, your job is to be a students and one of your responsibilities as a student is to engage in discussion with everyone and avoid cutting yourself or that other person off from the community. It is important, I think, that we are NOT against romance. I tell students that I could not control my heart and when you think about when you were young and in love the image of cupid's arrow hitting someone from out of the blue makes sense. You might not be able to avoid feelings, but we must help our children understand that they can (and must) control their behavior.

As parents, we have an important responsibility to help our children reach God's goals for their lives. We are their guides toward enjoyable friendship and finally toward stable, committed romantic relationships ending for most them in marriage! The key virtue we must instill in our children and practice ourselves in order to be a faithful guide for them is honesty.

The first key is making sure that you are honest with your teenager and yourself. I see parents fall down in two ways at this point. Some parents have bought our culture's view of relationships and romance. They tend to think that honesty consists in telling their children to "follow their hearts". This advice can be very harmful. Young people are immature. Their hearts are often terrible guides. God gave them parents so that we can help them not get pulled in wrong and destructive directions. Other parents fail to be honest by believing that their children will never have romantic interests until the day they get married. They want to treat teenagers as if they are still ignorant of the differences between boys and girls and the desirability of the opposite sex. Real honesty aims both at where we are today and where we want to go. We need to be honest that our hearts get attached to other people. The desire for relationships is good, but like many good things (and all powerful things) the fact of real romantic feelings doesn't obliterate the rest of life. Honesty means recognizing that our children will have affections and that we need to help them govern their behaviors.

The second key is that you keep lines of communication open and honest. This might seem like it can go without saying, but in my experience it needs to be said. Parents and students need to talk about these issues. They need to discuss both the present and the future. These conversations can be very uncomfortable. They are most uncomfortable when they are infrequent. But how do you start? I would recommend this-- if you are married--be affectionate around your children and talk about how you met and how you fell in love. This will gross them out, but it sends a clear message: Marriage is a place of love and affection. Being open and vulnerable and honest about your relationship is a good start toward encouraging them to be honest about theirs!

The third key is that you encourage your child to be honest about his or her life, heart, and desires. Now that lines of communication are open what should you say? Start with honesty--especially about love. Love involves affectionate feelings, but that is not all that love is. Often, romance has nothing to do with real love. Encourage them to see that fact. The goal of romantic relationships is not longing for someone or pining away it is eventually a committed sexual relationship (aka marriage). Encourage them to be honest about where they are in life. If they are not near a time when marriage is an option, encourage them to behave in a manner that recognizes that the feelings that they have are not ones that they can act on. Acting as if you are headed toward marriage when you are not ready is really just pretending that you are something that you are not. I often ask this to young people, "Is anyone ready to write a check?" I mean: "a real relationship is not one where two people live at their parent's house, eat their parent's food, and pretend to be linked at other points." God calls us to "leave and cleave". If you are not ready to do that, then don't behave like you are!

The fourth key is that you help your child be focused on being honest about (and maybe with) the other person. If a child is not at that age where a relationship could end in marriage (ask "Could they be married in two years?"), then they should keep their feelings under their hat. (Two years is sort of arbitrary, but it is a decent rule of thumb.) So, if your son is 12 and he comes home and says that he has fallen in love with a young lady in 6th grade and intends to ask her to the movies this Friday, you should say something like: "Aw, she seems like a nice girl...and if she is the one for you, she will be there for you when you are ready for a more firm commitment!" In a marriage ceremony a man and woman make promises to God and the congregation expects them to keep those commitments. Living faithfully in this area begins with being honest with ourselves.

Finally, you need to be honest with your child about the many blessings of faithfulness and the great problems that can result from being dishonest. Children do not have the experience to make good decisions in this area...and their feelings are really going to be pulling them. Start early when they are young talking about the blessings of joy and peace and harmony in faithful marriages. Also, warn them about the dangers or problems that come from pretending in this area. Our culture is replete with examples of pain and sorrow, heartbreak and disaster. Help them see that God's instructions are not keeping us from good things. They are instead protecting great blessings and, if followed, preparing us for great joy!

Topics: Education, Culture, Faith, Friendship, Family, Marriage