By Grace Gillaspie Gray | Contributor
Do you remember your first boyfriend or girlfriend? I do. His name was Bryan. He was a popular skater boy who had a lot of friends, and I was in the middle of a major identity crisis trying to figure out where I fit in. We ‘went out’ for two whole weeks (although we didn’t actually go out anywhere) before we shared a quick 0.5 second kiss by my locker on the way to lunch in eighth grade. Our friends all giggled when we walked into the cafeteria afterwards because naturally the peck had been premediated and planned out by at least 6 other people. He broke up with me that night on instant messenger because he wanted to go out with Margaret instead.
Luckily, I’ve learned a lot about relationships since middle school, but it took a lot of trial and error to learn about what a healthy relationship actually looks like.
There are a few prerequisites to growing a healthy relationship. First, parents must model and teach teens about how to love and protect themselves and stress this as their first priority. Adolescence is a time for significant identity transformation, so expecting teens to know exactly who they are is unrealistic. It does not matter whether you’re divorced, single, dating, remarried, or happily married to your teen’s other parent. What matters is that they observe your relationships with others.
Second, be honest about your own relationships. Don’t hide the fact that you have arguments. Let them see how disagreements play out and what it looks like to have an argument. Let them see you compromise and come to an agreement. Let them see when you have to admit that you were in the wrong and let them witness you apologizing. And definitely let them see when you make up and realize the relationship is more important than the argument.
Third, if your teenager decides they want to date, it’s okay to give your input, but don’t expect them to agree with everything you say. Even though they may share DNA or have lived in your home all or most of their life, they are still their own person and are going to make their own decisions. Safety should be the number one boundary, and this is non-negotiable. Let them know that they can always come to you for help. (And if they do come to you for help, offer it without making them feel ashamed.) Reinforce self-love and self-protection. Always remember that no parent is perfect, and your efforts to care for your teen will always be meaningful.
Posing questions, rather than giving direct advice, can also help teens recognize if they are loving and protecting themselves. Good examples include:
• “Do I feel safe in this situation?”
• “Is this hurting my feelings or my body?”
• “Are my choices being respected?”
• “Is my voice being heard?”
• “Is there a chance I may regret this later?”
• “Would I feel guilty or ashamed if my friends or family found out about this?”
• “What is my ‘gut’ telling me?”
• “Are my partner and I equally sharing decision-making responsibilities?
Keeping lines of communication open with your teen is always important, whether by example or through direct conversations. Try to ask questions about their own experiences before giving your own advice, and try to listen more than you talk. By communicating intentionally, you let your teen know that you are on their side and that your love is not conditional.
Need additional support? Girls to Women and Young Men’s Health & Wellness can help you get the conversation started or check out any of the resources listed below.
Editor’s Note: Grace Gillaspie Gray is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at Girls to Women/Young Men’s Health and Wellness with locations in Dallas, Fort Worth and McKinney (opening February 2020), Texas. For more information, visit their website at www.gtw-health.com or call 972-733-6565.
Turning Point-Rape Crisis Hotline and Center 800.886.7243
Texas Teen Runaway Hotline 888.580.HELP
National Dating Abuse Help Line 800.331.9474
The Trevor Lifeline-Hotline for LGBTQ Teen 866.488.7386
The Family Place-Domestic Violence Hotline 214.941.1991