I remember Valentine's Day when I was in primary school. Kids brought cards to school and passed them around to potential sweethearts.
Although it was seen as an innocent practice, we should have been more sensitive to the kids who didn't get any cards and were made to feel rejected by their classmates.
Things are different these days, which may leave parents struggling with how to talk about love and relationships – and rejection – with their kids. Developing attachments and experiencing rejection are a natural part of childhood.
A few transient experiences with rejection can support a child's development of coping skills, as long as such events occur in a protective environment and are followed by opportunities to develop new attachments.
With puberty, concerns about relationships become more acute as parents often wonder when their child is ready to start dating.
The world is more complicated now – I've learned that kids don't really go out on dates any more. What they do is hang out in groups, and sometimes more intense affiliations develop between two members of the group.
At that point the pair (same or different sexes) can decide if they want to be considered a couple. At this point the issue of consent comes up. Kids have to negotiate different kinds of consent for different types of relationships and for different stages in a relationship. It's a marvel they seem to manage as well as they do.
It's not a process that parents have much control over. Attempts to influence behaviour will quickly be seen as coercive and will lead to friction and a breakdown in communication.
It's better to put limits on curfews, spending money, drug and alcohol use and use of the car, to give a few examples. Parents can also talk to their children about what a positive and healthy relationship looks like, be good role models in their own intimate relationships and provide guidance on coping with rejection.
Here are some tips on how to approach relationships and the types of things to cover when talking about young love:
- As a parent, try to remember what it was like to be in love for the first time so you can relate to your child. Openly discuss what is acceptable and what is not while in a relationship. For example, having your children’s significant other over to your home is allowed, but they are not allowed to hang out in their room with the door closed or without you being home. Negotiating this will allow you to meet your teens halfway and give them the sense of independence they are craving.
- Talk about the importance of consent and what consent means. Be clear that no means no.
- Talk about the importance of safe sex. Although it is a hard topic to broach, it is an extremely important one. Sexually active teens need to understand they are susceptible to sexually transmitted infections, even if they have received vaccines or use birth control, and they need to plan ahead to prevent the risk of pregnancy. Remember that your family doctor can play a key role in sexual education.
- Talk about respect and why it is so important in a relationship.
- Intimidation and control can take different forms, especially verbally, so it’s important to talk about what that might look like.
- Discuss what physical abuse and verbal abuse are. Tell your kids they need to tell you if this is happening. Stress that this is never their fault.
- Bring up the benefits of maintaining independence and other friendships outside of their romantic relationship. Jealousy is another warning sign that things might not be right.
- Discuss rejection. Recount a story of how you overcame rejection and how it helps develop resilience, despite hurt feelings.
- Let your teens know they can always be open and talk to you about their feelings.
- Tell them that you love them and care about their happiness, and that while at times you may not like their choice of mates, you will always support them.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.
Dr. Peter Szatmari is chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at SickKids, CAMH and the University of Toronto.