I would say to the wall, purposely turned away from my mom perched gingerly on the side of my bed. “Honey,” she would respond, “It’s hard to just guess what you want to talk about.” I usually met this gentle resistance with more crying and an insistence that clearly she should just KNOW what was on my mind or weighing on my heart.
As a teenager, the “just guess” strategy saved me from having to start a difficult conversation or to find the words that were stuck in my throat. It also, however, lowered my mom into the center of a minefield. Wrong guess? “I can’t believe you think I want to talk about that!!” Sobbing ensued. Right guess? “Never mind, I don’t want to talk about it anymore!” More sobbing ensued.
Now that I am a parent I put myself in my mom’s impossible shoes, perched on the side of my bed. I imagine that on one hand, she was grateful that her teen daughter wanted to talk at all after intermittent stretches of stony silence. On the other, she was exasperated by the impossible position of not knowing what exactly we should be talking about.
Perhaps in your house, things go differently. Perhaps your teen turns to you bright eyed and engaged with a simple and clear request “Mom, I cannot wait to talk to you about ______!” (insert emotionally vulnerable topic here). But for those of you who are lobbing guesses towards teens whose backs are turned but desperate for conversations, a recent report gives us some clues about one set of conversations we should be sure to cover.
One of the talks that we’ve known we need to initiate with our kids is about sex and sexual health. A couple of years ago we wrote that parents should take the pressure off of having THE sex talk with their kids and instead think about talking early and often and breaking the conversation into many talks. We even provided a set of tips for getting those conversations started if you aren’t sure where to begin.
Our writing joins a sea of blogs, tips, and resources for talking to children and teens about sex. This is good! These conversations can be anxiety producing and too few parents feel prepared to have meaningful conversations over time about a subject that many were raised to think is taboo. We know from research that young people who have good communication with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity and be responsible and safe.
But what about teenage relationships?
But there is a complementary set of conversations that teens are also hungry for but aren’t sure how to talk about. They want to know what caring and lasting romantic relationships can look like and feel like. It turns out that in our focus on sex, we’ve forgotten to talk with them about relationships.
As the authors of the study “The Talk” out of Harvard’s Make Caring Common Project note, “Most sex education is either focused narrowly on abstinence or is ‘disaster prevention’— how not to get pregnant or contract sexually transmitted diseases.” They add,“We as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life—learn how to love.”
Falling in love
Disaster prevention tends to focus on the first phase of teenage relationships, the mood altering and exciting phase of falling in love.That’s because when we fall in love, our rational brain and impulse control are not usually in the driver’s seat. Falling in love is more emotion than thought. This isn’t an unfamiliar brain pattern to scientists. The brain activity of someone in love isn’t that different from someone on cocaine! From the brain’s point of view it is equally as powerful a chemical experience: dopamine (happy), norepinephrine (quick response), and serotonin (mood) are brain chemicals that take over when falling in love. The only part of the brain that is fairly inactive? The prefrontal cortex – the seat of reason and regulation.
This explains the euphoric, impulsive, emotional roller coaster teenagers are on when they fall in love. As exhilarating as this is, the brain cannot sustain these emotional and chemical fireworks for long.
Standing in love
Compared to falling in love, standing in love is less euphoric and intense but more enduring and fulfilling. It is only after the brain cools down from falling in love that the prefrontal cortex starts making judgements again about the viability of the relationship and that the chemicals for attentiveness, protectiveness, and attachment start flowing. This is either when you settle into a more stable teenage relationship or when you might start thinking, “What did I ever see in that person?”
Sometimes teenagers need to try dating multiple people to get a better understanding of what kind of teenage relationship works for them and might get bored after the exhilaration of falling in love cools down. But how to stand in love and build healthy relationship is not easy. Even with the prefrontal cortex back on board, relationships are complicated, messy, and anxiety-producing for teens.
The cost of our silences
The consequences of not talking to about teen relationships isn’t just a rougher start to dating. Our silence can inadvertently reinforce toxic patterns of misogyny and sexual harassment that young people absorb from culture, porn, and peers. According to the report, while 87% of survey respondents reported that they had been harassed, 76% of our respondents reported that they had never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. Similar majorities had never had conversations with their parents about various forms of misogyny.
Visions of standing in love rarely guide our conversations about teen relationships. This is partially because our fears sit center stage. Yet some of these fears aren’t supported by the data. For example, authors of “The Talk” found that, in particular, both youth and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the “hook up culture” among teens. The good news is that the research indicates that the vast majority of teens, upwards of 85%, prefer other options to hooking up. The bad news is that because we all tend to overestimate the prevalence of hook up culture it takes over the focus of our conversations with our kids.
So what should we talk about?
Absolutely adolescents need to hear about sex, sexuality and safe sex. But let’s couple that by talking about what it means to build a meaningful teenage relationships with someone too, regardless of how long it might last. Regardless of whether your child is engaged and eager or is facing the wall, here are some ways to get started today:
- Talk with your teen about the difference between falling in love and standing in love.
- Build off of their experience in friendships. What does a good friendship feel like? When might you realize that someone isn’t being a very good friend?
- Start with the self. Ask your teen to identify things they love about themselves. Why do they deserve safety, love, and respect?
- Identify the feelings of different kinds of teenage relationships – including infatuation, care, attraction, and love. What do these feel like? What are the healthy ways that these feelings can play out? When might they become unhealthy? What do you do when things don’t feel right?
- Brainstorm the skills of healthy relationships including problem solving, listening, conflict resolution, and generosity. How can you practice these?
- Use TV shows and movies to talk about relationships. When you see examples of healthy relationships you might ask,What skills seem to be working for them? Where might they need more practice?” You can also ask questions like, “What would you do if your boyfriend started acting like this?”
- Be clear about the definition of consent, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Be open to questions and conversation.
- Look for signs of controlling behavior or physical abuse. Be concerned if your child starts isolating him or herself from their friends or other activities.
- Check out ThatsNotCool.com for more resources, teen-created tools, and forums for teens and parents to talk about healthy teenage relationships online and offline.
- Ground concerned conversations in behaviors that worry you. Again instead of “I can’t stand your boyfriend,” try “I’ve noticed that you don’t spend any time with your other friends since you started dating him. Why do you think that is?”
- Encourage your teen to bring love interests over to your house as much as possible. Establish a relationship with the person in your child’s life. This can help if issues arise later on.
- Talk to your teenager regularly about sex and sexuality.
- Assume that your teen knows what a healthy teenage relationship looks like or feels like.
- Let misogynist comments or jokes go unchecked either in person or in media. Use it as an opportunity to step in, explain what is hurtful about the comment, and engage kids in conversations.
- Assume that you know who your teen will be attracted to. Instead make sure that your language is open and inclusive so they will be open to sharing with you.
Forget to practice what to say and what to do if your teen feels like they are in an unsafe or unhealthy relationship or if their friend is. For example, you can role play how to start that conversation with an adult.
- Put down your teen’s significant other. Instead of “I can’t stand your boyfriend,” try “I know you care about him. Tell me some of the things you really like about him.”
- Ignore signs of teen dating abuse