Danielle Steel writes about it. Barry White sang about it. And everyone, including (like it or not) your kids, searches for it. “Adults and kids have an innate desire to give and receive love,” says Amber Madison, a sex educator and therapist in New York City and the author of Talking Sex With Your Kids, ($13,amazon.com). But supporting your children as they test the waters isn’t easy. How, for example, do you cheer for l’amour when your 16-year-old daughter brings home a 22-year-old boyfriend? Or when your son sees your online dating profile and then critiques it? Here, relationship and parenting experts share solutions for 10 tricky dating predicaments, no matter which member of your household Cupid is targeting.
Your four-year-old says that she has a “boyfriend.”
Relax. Just because your daughter is chasing boys on the playground does not mean that she’s going to be boy-crazy later in life. It’s common for preschoolers—both boys and girls—to mimic what they see at home (you and your husband cuddling on the couch) and in movies (those darn princesses with their one true loves). A girl saying “I have a boyfriend” or a boy saying “I’m going to marry Emily” is a lot like playing house, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and a coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids ($13, amazon.com). Just make sure that your daughter knows that she’s pretending and that she understands what a boyfriend actually is, so she doesn’t get confused. “Tell your child that, at her age, she can have friends who are boys but not real boyfriends,” says Kennedy-Moore. Then emphasize that, girl or boy, she should be kind to everyone.
Your 17-year-old has yet to go on a date—and you’re pretty sure that she’s bummed about it.
Your teen’s singlehood is good news, even if she doesn’t see it that way. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that girls who delayed romantic relationships—that is, spending time with real, live boyfriends—to age 14 or older were less likely to have behavioral problems at home and at school than those who began dating at 11. A 2010 survey of 1,770 Yale undergraduates (in other words, serious smarties) revealed that only 64 percent had ever had sexual intercourse. Plus, “a lot of early bloomers—that is, kids who date at a young age—go through turmoil because they are entering adult scenarios that they don’t have the maturity to handle,” says Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Santa Cruz, California, and the author of Parenting a Teen Girl ($16, amazon.com). A late bloomer won’t experience that same aggravation and angst. So rather than offering your child flirtation tips, reassure her that she’s OK and encourage her to keep pursuing her own interests. You should be troubled only if she doesn’t have friends or has a hard time with all relationships, not just romantic ones, says Kennedy-Moore. Make sure that your child has ample opportunities for meeting people (clubs at school, a summer job, a volunteer activity) so that she can learn how to forge connections. “That’s the important skill that teens need for college—and life,” says Kennedy-Moore.
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A classmate has a crush on your eight-year-old, and he shows it by teasing her.
Teasing as a sign of affection is normal at this age. Kids think of their taunts (“You have cooties!”) as funny jokes shared among friends. But to the target, it’s upsetting no matter the intent, and how to handle it as a parent isn’t straightforward. Jump in too soon and you’ll be that helicopter parent micro-managing her kid’s life. Do nothing and you risk your daughter’s becoming distracted or self-conscious at school. She can probably tell that the attention is “I think you’re cute” teasing and not sinister, but if not, you can gently clue her in. (That may lessen the sting.) “You can also touch base with the teacher so she can make sure that everyone—your daughter included—feels safe in the classroom,” says Hemmen. “Ask the teacher if she can say something about how to treat each other in a general way to the whole class so that nobody feels embarrassed. You can also ask to have your child’s seat moved away from the offender.” Another good idea: Equip your kid with responses that she can use the next time she’s teased, such as “You’re making me uncomfortable. I want you to stop.” Having a mental script prepared will help her feel calm and in control when that antagonistic Don Juan approaches.
You’re not sure of how to introduce your boyfriend to your kids.
Before you consider introducing someone, ask yourself, Do I believe that we have a future as a couple? Have we discussed that future? If the answers to those questions are no and no, then you’re not ready yet to bring your kids into the relationship. The reason: Kids become attached easily, so when a breakup is likely, so are the chances of putting your family through heartache. Answered those questions above in the affirmative? Then let your kids know that there’s someone important to you whom you would like them to meet, says Michelle Golland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. Then plan an activity that will, ideally, keep everyone busy and interacting instead of staring at one another across plates of spaghetti. (Golland suggests bowling or mini golf.) After you all meet, there is a chance that your kids will ask some hard questions, like “Are you going to marry him?” Don’t give a long spiel. It will only make them stew on the topic more. Instead, just quickly say, “You’ll be the first one to know if Mommy plans on marrying again,” says Golland. Repeat yourself if necessary.
Your daughter is home from college with her boyfriend, and you don’t know where he should sleep.
Coed dorms are pretty common (as is, face it, rule flaunting on a single-sex floor), so relegating him to the couch is probably just for show. (Sorry.) That said, sometimes show is important, especially if you have younger teens and you don’t want them to think it’s OK for their boyfriends to sleep over, says Madison. If you are genuinely comfortable with your daughter and her boyfriend sleeping in the same room, let that guide your decision. But if you have any reservations, it’s your right to say no—and not feel an iota of guilt. When you go against your gut instinct, “you often end up resenting your child and the significant other,” says Hemmen. If your child pushes back and threatens not to visit at all, switch the focus to your relationship (leaving the boyfriend out of it). Let her know that her threat is hurtful and that you don’t want to see this drive a wedge between you. Still, stand your ground. “Tell her, ‘I promise to always respect your house rules if you respect mine,’” says Madison. Treating her like an adult, not like a kid being told what to do, will help.
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You suspect that your 13-year-old has dating on the brain, but he won’t open up to you about it. At all.
If he isn’t filling you in on his love life, that’s pretty normal. It’s also perfectly normal for you to be curious. As long as he has been schooled in sexual health, there’s no need to come at him like a detective. Instead, casually let him know that you’re here in case he wants to talk. “It’s great when moms say, ‘Remember, I was a girl once, so I have some feedback if you ever want it,’” says Hemmen. “At this age, many sons find that somewhat humorous and start identifying Mom as a possible resource.”
You should also be checking his social-media use—not to pinpoint his latest crush, but just to make sure that all his online interactions (romantic or otherwise) are appropriate. “Parents need to be involved at this age because younger teens have terrible judgment and a false sense of bravery and anonymity online,” says Hemmen. (That is, it’s not uncommon for them to post bikini-clad photographs or to message one another with lewd pickup lines.) You might feel overbearing, but 46 percent of 10- to 23-year-olds said that they would change their online behavior if they knew that their parents were paying attention, according to a 2013 study by the online security company McAfee. If you see something risqué pop up in his feed, address it in person.
Your daughter is in her room crying. Some guy broke her heart.
Even if she has the door closed and her headphones on, touch base. Start the conversation by validating how she feels. Breakups are tough, especially if you haven’t been through one before. And even if her tears seem blown out of proportion to you (they were dating only, what, a month?), don’t minimize her emotions. “It’s natural and developmentally appropriate for her to have huge feelings about a breakup,” says Hemmen. Encourage her to talk. And if she doesn’t want to confide in you, “don’t take it personally,” says Hemmen. “Say, ‘I get it. Breakups are really hard, and I’m here for you.’” Then suggest going for a walk or to a movie, or mention others whom she can call, like a close friend or a trusted relative.
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You just met your son’s college girlfriend. You already hate her.
Keep quiet. Young adults have a tendency to rebel, which means that one word from you could cement the relationship further and even drive your son away. Instead, try to keep an open mind. “If your son or daughter likes somebody, you should try really hard to find out why,” says Golland. “Check in with yourself and the reasons for your opinion.” If you simply don’t approve of this woman’s appearance or manners, or if you’re plain old jealous that he calls her every day and not you, then back off. “These are superficial concerns that will just annoy your son if you voice them. The only time you can speak up is if that person is mistreating your child,” says Rachel Sussman, a relationship therapist in New York City. Two signs that the relationship may be unhealthy: Your kid’s personality changes a lot in front of his girlfriend, or you witness her criticizing him. If and when these signals flare, use the phrase “I notice…” to bring up your concern, suggests Hemmen: “Say, ‘I notice that you’re being hard on yourself, and that’s new for you.’ Those words are nonjudgmental, and they show your kid that you are there for him.”
Your kids don’t want you dating, but you’re feeling ready.
Whether or not to date is an adult decision, and you are the only one who can make it. Be clear about that to your kids. But also acknowledge their feelings by saying, “It makes you uncomfortable that your mom is dating, and I understand that.” That way, they’ll know that they are being heard. “Also ask them what they are worried about,” says Kennedy-Moore. If your kids are concerned that you won’t have enough time for them, you can assure them that they’ll always be your priority. With younger kids, it helps to talk about the situation at their level. Tell them, “Mommy is going on a playdate,” suggests Golland. It sounds less threatening than a date, and it’s a term that they’ll understand. And don’t stress too much about being forthright when a relationship is still new. A simple “I’m going out for a bit” is explanation enough and takes the pressure off everyone.
Your 16-year-old daughter is always with her boyfriend.
Resist telling her what to do, which few children ever appreciate, and instead explain that in a solid relationship, each person has a life outside of it, suggests Madison: “That means friends, interests, and school activities.” Don’t target her boyfriend. You’ll just put her on the defensive that way. Rather, make the conversation about balance. Acknowledge that it’s normal to want to spend time with someone she likes a lot and that you want to help her figure out how to juggle her other responsibilities, says Hemmen. If they’re still attached at the hip despite your best lecture, or if you’re worried that they’re always alone together fooling around, invite her boyfriend to have dinner or go hiking with your family to help your daughter reconnect with other important people and activities. This will also “de-emphasize the physical aspect of their relationship,” says Kennedy-Moore.