Out and About | 06-Jan-2018

Dating and Relationships: Talking to Kids

By Marleen Koch

As you walk by groups of chatting teens, watch movies and TV, and witness the onslaught of popular culture around us, the amount of time and energy given to the topic of romantic relationships is hard to ignore. Whether your teen is entering the dating world or simply being confronted with multiple images, ideas, and new emotions, navigating the world of romantic feelings, hormones and relationships inside the context of high school, culture, friends, and family is no easy task. Every family has its own values around this topic, but no matter what those are, talking about them, talking about this topic and talking with your child is important.


Wilson-Shockley (1995) said teens attributed 25% (higher at 34% for boys) of their strong emotions to issues related to romantic relationships, more than any other factor. Young teens tend to see romantic relationships in idealized ways and can experience emotional extremes that they struggle to manage (Furman, Brown, & Feiring, 1999). Adams & Williams (2011) found that many teens also expressed that they would actually like their parents to talk to them about this topic. It can be intimidating and awkward to start these conversations, but teens are new to these feelings and experiences and often want guidance through this developmental stage.


To help you think about talking to your teen, let’s first look at what teens want to know from you. Adams & Williams (2011) asked teens in a Southwestern U.S. state what they wish they would have known. Teens expressed wanting to know more about emotional, relational, and physical desires and impacts, including the potential impact on their other relationships with friends and family.


What about UTS students, who are likely a very different populatio? What do the teens here wish their parents told them? I anonymously surveyed our S5 and S6 students and asked if there was anything they wish their parents had talked to them about. I received 41 responses. In fairness, some said, “there is nothing I want my parents to talk to me about.” I also received a couple of responses saying that their parents already did a great job of not pushing the topic too much, but being available to approach. However, there were many responses that highlighted areas that our students wish their parents would have talked to them about.


Here are some excerpts from students who checked that they were willing to have their answers quoted word for word:  


“I wish my parents had been more willing to bring up the subject themselves, even if it meant being rebuffed. Sometimes I was willing to talk about what was going on in my romantic life and sometimes I wasn't, but I was always too scared to bring it up. It would have been nice for them to check in with me every so often to make it easier for me if I was at a time where I wanted to share and didn't know how.”


“I wish my parents knew that I wanted to date people when I was younger. Even when I was 15 or 16, my parents would laugh off the idea of me wanting to be in a relationship, as if that was way out of line. At this time, I might even have been dating people when they did that, and it was very uncomfortable and I felt super weird."

I wish my parents had understood that sex isn't only for after marriage. I would have felt so much more comfortable talking to them about my love life and my experience if I didn't think (or even know) that they would get mad about me kissing someone let alone having sex.”


“I am a queer cis girl...if I could change one thing about my life and my past, I would have wanted my parents to be more accepting because I really wish I could have talked to them about this.”


“Letting you know it's ok to tell them about it if you are in a relationship, rather than feeling the need to hide it because they might disapprove.”


“I wish my parents were more open about their own experiences. maybe not about sex but about their earlier relationships. I don't even know how my parents met and I've never heard them talk about any of their own experiences before.”


“To be honest, my parents did a great job overall, but I think they sort of skipped over a key point, which is that you do not need to be a in a relationship. Dating another person does not define who you are, and being single doesn't make you less valuable of a person. A good friend is often a lot better than a partner."

"Oh, also, don't do anything you don't want to do. Don't date someone if you feel pressured, or because your friends think you should, or because you're "shipped" with them. Don't kiss someone if you don't want to, etc. Its okay to be uncomfortable with something, so don't do anything you don't want to do.”


I also asked if there was anything they wish parents had focused on less. Here are a couple quotes from those answers:


“I wish they had teased me less. "Oh, you can't decide which shirt to put on, is there a boy you're dressing up for?" "He's pretty cute, eh?" It made me feel less comfortable sharing my real feelings with them.”


“My parents made it out that guys ONLY ever think about sex, however, I've found men to be very emotional and less sexual than stereotypes might say."

Also, my parents always mentioned dating male friends, however, from my experience, a friendship is always more valuable than a romantic relationship."

Thirdly, they were always being like "don't kiss", "don't have sex", just all the time, in reference to relationships in general, however, despite having dated before, I have literally done none of these, so I wished they made relationships out to be less physical, because then it sort of gets into your head that they have to be, when they really don't.”


Many of the quotes’ sentiments were echoed in other student’s responses. Hopefully they are helpful as you consider what conversations you want to have with your teens. How do you have these conversations? It is not always the easiest subject to aproach. Here are some guidelines from an article by Guilamo-Ramos & Bouris (2009), researchers and curriculum developers in this area. They talk about four critical areas of parent-adolescent communication.


  1. The Timing of Communication. They suggest beginning between 10-12 years old. Starting young decreases the risk of early sexual activity and can help adolescents make lower-risk decisions over time.
  2. The Content of Communication. The phrase here is “Think Health, Talk Social”. Parents are usually worried about children participating in physical dating acts, risking their health and safety. However, teens talk about motivations of wanting to be loved, popularity, feelings. While you think about your teens health and safety, also talk to them about dealing with peer’s opinions, recognizing emotions, recognizing and responding to control and manipulation, dealing with experiences of rejection, and examples of what your own social and emotional experiences have been.
  3. The Frequency of Communication. Having “The Talk” is a common method for parents to say what they feel they should, and then not bring up the subject again. However, many little talks that expand and change as your child develops will be more effective than one big talk.
  4. The Context of Communication. Parent trustworthiness, openness, accessibility, and responsiveness are all associated with reduced risk taking. Your teen will be more likely to both approach you and listen to your advice if you can develop a relationship with these qualities.

It can feel intimidating, but your children are also intimidated by all of the new physical, emotional, and social developments. As they try to figure out how to make healthy and beneficial decisions in this area, take the time to guide and mentor them. They need some direction from reliable adults on dealing with emotions, peers, physical development, attraction, and all of the other previously unchartered experiences.


If you are interested in reading more on this topic, the following are the research sources referenced in this post:



Adams, H. L., & Williams, L. R. (2011). What they wish they would have known: Support for comprehensive sexual education from Mexican American and white adolescents’ dating and sexual desires. Children and Youth Services Review, 33. 1875-1885


Guilamo-Ramos, V., & Bouris, A. (2009). Working with parents to promote healthy adolescent sexual development. The Prevention Researcher, 16(4), 7-11


Larson, R. W., Clore, G. L. & Wood, G. A. (1999) The emotions of romantic relationships: Do they wreak havoc on adolescents? In Furman, W., Brown, B. B., & Feiring, C. (Eds.). The development of romantic relationships in adolescence. (pp. 1-18). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press


Wilson Shockley, S. (1995). Gender differences in adolescent depression: The contribution of negative affect. M.S. thesis. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign