Just weeks ago 16-year-old Ella* and her boyfriend shared their first kiss. “They’re so sweet together,” says her mom, Jan* of Barrie, Ont. While the innocence of her daughter’s relationship is something Jan wanted for her, it’s also something the mom of two laid the foundation for early on, through candid conversations and empowering role models in books and movies.
Jan’s hope—that Ella’s first brush with love would be a positive foundation for future relationships—is one many parents can relate to. And it turns out parents have more to offer than info about safe sex and birth control; they can also teach their kids about healthy, happy love.
Saleema Noon, a sexual-health educator in Vancouver, agrees with the early approach. “Parents need to talk to their kids long before the first relationship starts and then keep going,” she says. But even if you haven’t discussed dating, let alone sex, it’s not too late. Rather than structured talks, Noon suggests looking for natural, age-appropriate opportunities to broach the subject.
“TV shows like Modern Family—which shows a range of relationships—are great. Kids are more likely to open up if it’s not too personal.” And point out characteristics of a good relationship when you see them, she says. “Honesty, respect, trust and equality—explore what those words really mean and how those behaviours look.”
Even great communication may not prepare your kids (or you) for the intensity of those first relationships. Puberty is about explosive neural growth, says Houston-based Kayt Sukel, author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships (Free Press).
But because the greatest growth is in the part of the brain that controls base desires such as sex and love—not the area that allows us to think through behaviour—first loves can be all-encompassing.
“What’s lacking is the experience to put those feelings in context,” explains Sukel.
Wendy*, a Nanaimo, B.C.-based mom of four girls, has seen this first-hand. She recently watched her youngest daughter, 16-year-old Kaitlyn*, go from being immersed in a full life—including a part-time job, sports, school and friends—to spending all her time “hanging out” with her boyfriend. And even when Kaitlyn wasn’t with him, she was tethered to him through Snapchat or Instagram. “I worried she was losing track of her own life,” says Wendy.
The use of technology can make it tricky for parents to keep tabs on young relationships. “It’s easier to flirt by text or IM,” says Noon. “Kids are braver: They’ll make sexual comments online that they might never make in person.”
Her advice? Let kids know that communication, including text messages and online posts, may be monitored. Noon says both boys and girls need to learn to say what they are comfortable with and what they consent to. Parents need to know that it’s okay to shut off the technology and encourage more in-person communication.
While plenty of early relationships are positive experiences, some can be volatile. The signs of an abusive teen relationship are not always obvious, but parents tend to know at a gut level when something is wrong with their kids, says Linda Plenert, a Winnipeg-based sexuality educator at the Sexuality Education Resource Centre of Manitoba.
The issues that adults have, such as a breakup or a controlling or abusive partner, are the same ones our kids have and come with the same confusion.
“Try framing your worries around a personal story,” suggests Plenert. “Engage, don’t lecture. Parents should listen as much as or more than they talk.” If the dialogue stalls or goes beyond preventive education, Plenert suggests seeking professional help.
For Wendy, it was the intensity of Kaitlyn’s relationship that concerned her, so she talked to Kaitlyn, her boyfriend and his mother about slowing down and adding clearer boundaries.
Wendy encouraged the couple to spend less time cuddling on the couch and more time being active. Kaitlyn is adjusting well to the new expectations, and Wendy says it’s nice to have her joining in on family activities, even if she’s bringing her boyfriend along.