Teen dating can be a squeamish topic for parents, a reminder that Daddy's little girl or Mommy's little guy isn't so little any more. But how your teen handles relationships now will have consequences for the rest of their lives.
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So parents, you've got to talk about dating.
Look past the eye rolling and the annoyed sighs. Your teens are really listening.
"You cannot expect your child to read your mind," said Terri Lancaster, outpatient supervisor with the Mental Health Center of Western Maryland in Hagerstown.
Lancaster said parents need to tell teens what they expect. "We need to talk about what makes for a good relationship, about how to be safe," she said. "We need to talk about trusting your instinct. We need to talk about how you should expect to be treated when you're out with someone else."
Lancaster offers a few more tips for parents:
Age isn't just a number
A huge age difference between boyfriend and girlfriend should be a red flag to parents. Along with the age difference is a huge difference in the ability to use good judgment, Lancaster said.
But try telling that to a teenager.
Lancaster suggests using an analogy: "When you're in high school, are you going to go by the middle school and look at all the hot guys? No. Why do you think they're doing that? Because you're young, you're vulnerable and you don't know any better."
Encourage public, group outings
Group activities are always better for teens. Specifically, group activities in a public setting. "It's more likely there's adult supervision, adult transportation — someone is sponsoring it," Lancaster said.
Group dates also encourage teens to maintain pre-existing friendships throughout their romantic relationships, which helps if The One doesn't turn out to be The One.
Consider the opposite. What if a you're in a relationship for months and have distanced yourself from your friends? Imagine what they might think post-boyfriend or post-girlfriend if you've isolated yourself from them during the entire relationship.
"You think you're not good enough to talk to us any more and now we don't want to talk to you," Lancaster said. "You wanted be with that guy, so go be with that guy."
Lancaster said group dates are a way to pre-empt this sort of fallout among friends. It also helps if parents keep lines of communication open.
Isolation is a red flag
To have a withdrawn teenager can be a normal part of adolescent development, as a child learns how to be his or her own person.
"But when children feel they have to choose between their parents and the significant other, that's dangerous," Lancaster said.
So if the a significant other won't "allow" your kid to socialize with friends and is continually checking your child's Facebook status updates to see who they're hanging out with, "all of those things take away from that young person's sense of self," Lancaster said. "It becomes much more of this person is trying to take over their lives."
What do you do in this scenario?
"You should be able to honestly say, ‘I don't like this person, you're not yourself when you're with them,'" Lancaster said.
What to do when they break up
"Teenagers notoriously have this black and white thinking," Lancaster said. "‘This is The One, he'll only be The One' or ‘I'll never be able to survive without her.' ‘She was the best thing that ever happened to me.'"
But then next week, the Next Best Thing That Ever Happened to them comes along.
Lancaster suggests parents say something like, "I can tell you have strong feelings for this person, and I hope it works out for you, but just in case, what will happen if you find someone else that you like better? What will happen if they find someone else that they like better? What will happen if your boyfriend or girlfriend does something that's totally inappropriate?"
Exclusive dating and sexual activity complicate teen breakups, Lancaster said.
If after the breakup your child is showing symptoms that don't seem to resolve themselves after two weeks — symptoms like losing weight, feelings of being so distraught or so upset that they've mentioned suicide or harming someone else — it might be depression.
"That's the time to get a mental health intervention, go to the emergency room," Lancaster said.
Puppy love? Love sickness? No such thing.
"Those terms have been around since I've been a kid," Lancaster said. "No, it is not a diagnosis. But I think that whole concept — this idea of being in love with the feeling of being in love, has been around for a very long time."
We all like that heightened sense of excitement, the boost of feel-good endorphins that makes us feel better when we're in love.
"That's why love is such a powerful emotion," Lancaster said.
But being in love turns into something dysfunctional when it causes people to change — sleep deprivation because of nonstop texting or an obsession with who the significant other is talking to.
Eventually, there should comes a point when the teen realizes that while he or she might think this person might be The One, they realize that the person isn't their entire world, Lancaster said.
"I still have to go to school every day, I still have to do things with my parents every day. I still have to go to the orthodontist — all of those things that are part of my life," she said.
"When people feel like they can have a life apart from that person, I think that's one of the hallmarks of maturity," Lancaster said.