Date: February 1, 2010
The school cafeteria often delivers a snapshot of the state of relations between students from Mars and students from Venus. In the early grades, boys and girls usually sit together sharing Sun Chips and playfully poking at each other. By the fourth grade, the picture shifts. For the most part, the cafeteria becomes segregated with "boy" and "girl" tables. Around the end of seventh grade, boys and girls start to pair off and sit together.
For tweens and teens, it's a time when equally exciting and confusing signals are transmitted and received among boys and girls like errant ping-pong balls. For parents, it's a time when memories of their own trials and tribulations with the opposite sex are stirred up, leading to anxiety and stress.
How do parents know when a teen dips his toe into uncharted waters? Be on the lookout for subtle changes since your teen might not share his private thoughts. For example, is he starting to fix his hair and check himself out in the mirror?
Sarah Burningham, author of Boyology: A Teen Girl's Crash Course in All Things Boy (Chronicle Books, 2009) and How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl's Survival Guide (Chronicle Books, 2008), says, "Most teenagers probably won't come out and say they're interested in someone. In fact, denial is a good first sign. You might notice that your teen is talking about a certain someone a lot, yet he insists he doesn't 'like' that person. Other clues to look for are lots of texts and phone calls from one person."
Once you know, you might find it difficult to communicate with your teen about this new attraction. "It's important not to trivialize your teen's relationships," Burningham suggests.
"Even though it might seem like puppy love, those feelings of first love are real, and dismissing them will only make your teen feel like he can't talk to you. The best thing you can do is listen. Don't offer too much advice. Instead, you can help your teen come to his own realizations about relationships by asking questions about what your teen is getting out of a relationship. Remember the goal is to help your teen build healthy relationship patterns."
Parents should tune in with a heightened awareness to all friends, both male and female, and of their teen's whereabouts. Teens will fight this because they want to be independent. There has to be a level of trust, as well as a specific set of rules.
"Every family has different rules," Burningham comments. "Be sure to set them early and stick by them. Make it a tradition that dates come into the house to meet you before your teen goes out. If it's expected and started early, it doesn't have to be a fight every time."
She also suggests setting a private texting code that your teen can send if something goes wrong or she needs your help. "A lot of the teenagers I interviewed used their parents as excuses to get out of uncomfortable situations," Burningham reports.
Blossoming young relationships are fertile grounds for testing new boundaries and finding middle ground where both you and your teen can feel comfortable.
Myrna Beth Haskell is the mother of two teens. She has been writing about parenting, family issues and children's health for 12 years.
Tips and Tales from Other Parents
"Rules are a definite! No entertaining guys in the bedroom — even when you are home! Curfew is a must. If they change locations, they better call!"
— Gail McGann, Bomoseen, Vt.
"My 14-year-old son is good about telling me things that happen. I just hope he always feels comfortable to talk to me so I know what's going on ... or at least some of it! We keep an eye on the computer, too."
— Lori Ann Jones, Salt Point, N.Y.
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