Romantic relationships area major developmental milestone. They come with all the other changes going on during adolescence – physical, social and emotional. And they’re linked to your child’s growing interest in body imageand looks, independenceand privacy.
Romantic relationships can bring lots ofemotional ups and downsfor your child – and sometimes for the whole family. The idea that your child might have these kinds of feelings can sometimes be a bit confronting for you. But these feelings are leading your child towards a deeper capacity to care, share and develop intimate relationships.
There isn’t a‘right age’ to start having relationships– every child is different, and every family will feel differently about this issue. But here aresome averages:
From 9-11 years, your child might start to show more independence from your family and more interest in friends.
From 10-14 years, your child might want to spend more time in mixed gender groups, which might eventually end up in a romantic relationship.
From 15-19 years, romantic relationships can become central to social life. Friendships might become deeper and more stable.
Many teenagers spend a lot of time thinking and talking about being in a relationship. In these years, teenage relationships might last only a few weeks or months. It’salsonormal for children to have no interest in romantic relationshipsuntil their late teens. Some choose to focus on schoolwork, sport or other interests.
Before your child starts having relationships, he might have one or more crushes.
Anidentity crushis when your child finds someone she admires and wants to be like.
Aromantic crushis the beginning of romantic feelings. It’s about your child imagining another person as perfect or ideal. This can tell you a lot about the things that your child finds attractive in people.
Romantic crushes tend not to last very long because ideas of perfection often break down when your child gets to know the other person better. But your child’s intense feelings are real, so it’s best to take crushes seriously and not make fun of them.
Younger teenagers usually hang out together in groups. They might meet up with someone special among friends, and then gradually spend more time with that person alone.
If your child wants to go out alone with someone special, talking about it with him can help youget a sense of whether he’s ready. Does he want a boyfriend or girlfriend just because his friends do? Does he think it’s the only way to go out and have fun? Or does he want to spend time getting to know someone better?
If the person your child is interested in is older or younger, it could be worth mentioning that people of different ages might want different things from relationships.
The most influential role models for teenagers are the grown-ups in their lives. You can be a positiverole modelforrespectful relationshipsand friendships by treating your partner, friends and family with care and respect. Just talking about both men and women respectfully lets your child know you think everyone is equal and valuable.
Your family plays a big part in the way your child thinks about teenage relationships.
When youencourage conversations about feelings, friendships and family relationships, it can help your child feel confident to talk about teenage relationships in general. If your child knows what respectful relationships look like in general, she can relate this directly to romantic relationships.
These conversations might mean that your child will feel more comfortable sharing his feelings with you as he starts to get romantically interested in others. And the conversations can also bring up other important topics, like treating other people kindly, breaking up kindly and respecting other people’s boundaries.
Havingconversations with your child about sex and relationships from a young agemight mean your child feels more comfortable to ask you questions as she moves into adolescence.
In some ways, talking about romantic and/or sexual teenage relationships islike talking about friendships or going to a party. Depending on your values and family rules, you and your child might need to discuss behaviour and ground rules, and consequences for breaking the rules. For example, you might talk about how much time your child spends with his girlfriend or boyfriend versus how much time he spends studying, or whether it’s OK for his girlfriend or boyfriend to stay over.
You might also want to agree on some strategies for what your child should do if she feels unsafe or threatened.
Young people might also talk to their friends, which is healthy and normal. They still need your back-up, though, so keeping the lines of communication open is important.
Some conversations about relationships can be difficult, especially if you feel your child isn’t ready for a relationship. Check out our article aboutdifficult conversationsfor more tips on how to handle them.
Break-ups and broken hearts are part of teenage relationships. To make things worse, teenage break-ups might be played out in public – maybe at school, or online on social media.
You might expect your child to be sad and emotional if his relationship ends. It might not seem this way at the time, but this is part of learning how to cope with difficult decisions and disappointments. Your child might need time and space, a shoulder to cry on, and a willing ear to listen. He might also need some distraction.
Active listeningcan help you pick up on your child’s needs. But if your child seems sad or even depressed for more than a few weeks after a break-up, it might be worth getting some advice from a health professional, like your GP.
A child with additional needs has the same interest in – and need forinformation about – sex and relationships as other teenagers. Ratesof sexual activity for young people with additional needs are the same asthose for teenagers without additional needs.
Make sure your child has developmentally appropriate education athome and at school. Your health professional, local communityresources and relevant support groups should be able to give you help or advice.