“I love you.”
The first time your teen drops those words about a boyfriend or girlfriend can be a surreal experience. It was for me as a mom.
I’m talking about that first love – the heart eyes that are just oozing from your child’s face. It’s equal parts adorable and terrifying, because you know what’s ahead.
Heartbreak? Probably. Sex? Maybe.
When your child spills the love beans, it’s not time to hit the panic button. Instead, think of it as your chance to be their love-coach, helping them make wise decisions for a foundation of healthy relationships.
Considering that fewer than 2 percent of people marry their high school sweetheart, that first romantic relationship is likely just the beginning of their love journey.
When and how to have the sex talk
The earlier you have “the talk” the better. If you start outlining your expectations for relationships early on, the easier and more natural these ongoing conversations will be so you’re not trying to fan the flame once the spark is already ignited.
Here’s what you can expect at each age:
In early adolescence (9-13 for girls and 11-14 for boys), tweens start seeking new connections beyond their parents. This can mean stronger friendships and the birth of romantic relationships.
As they hit middle adolescence (13-16 for girls and 14-17 for boys), it’s a time for experimentation with deeper romances and a dash of flirtation.
Late adolescence (16-21 for girls and 17-21 for boys) is marked with young adults gaining independence, developing intimacy skills, and becoming more capable of close, complex relationships. It’s also a time when their sexuality and desire for a partner becomes more expressive. During late adolescence, the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen, which both increase during puberty, create heightened sexual desires.
Here are some tips to help guide your discussion about love, relationships, and sex, backed by science and firsthand experience:
- Encourage self-love. Remind your teen to first love themselves before they can extend that to others. When they have a healthy amount of self-esteem, they’re less likely to dive into risky business or decisions that they aren’t comfortable with. Makes sense, right?
- Prioritize boundaries. Help them think ahead about what their needs, wants and desires are in a romantic relationship — and establish boundaries. This is super important, because their brain’s prefrontal cortex is still maturing, which is responsible for emotional regulation and reasoning. Hence, you have an emotionally vulnerable teenager with the love hormone cocktail flowing through their body: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. Teens find it difficult, if not impossible, to think about the future when their physical instincts are overpowering their rational judgment.
- Set expectations: Your role in this is to clearly express your expectations for romantic relationships. Does the door need to stay open at all times? Establish that expectation before the door even closes. No overnights? While you’re teenager may not like to hear it, you can respectfully provide rules while still listening to their concerns.
While every family has different values, opinions and preferences when it comes to sexual experiences, consider this scenario:
What to do: Your teen had previously made the decision to wait to have sex and has now found “the one.”
Step 1: Build mutual respect with empathy
Responding with an empathetic statement that includes a reminder of their planned behavior:
“It can be hard to wait to have sex when you are in a relationship and I know you are committed to doing that,” gains trust and builds a strong foundation for future conversations.
The key here is to avoid judging or showing a strong reaction, even if you’re surprised or concerned.
Step 2: Ask open-ended questions
Once you set the stage for the discussion by responding with respect, it’s time to move the conversation forward by letting your teen do the talking. Yikes, I know, but you got this.
Talks go much more smoothly when they are designed to draw out a teen’s thoughts about a behavior. It’s important to ask a question that gets them talking such as, “What do you need in order to keep this commitment to yourself?” Challenging them to think through the steps in order to maintain or change a behavior is key.
Step 3: Listen and reflect
Listen to what they say, and offer suggestions they may not have thought about: “Those are good ideas. Can I share some other things for you to think about?” Asking permission gives them a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect that you are talking with them and not at them.
Step 4: Plan ahead
Follow-up by sharing ideas they may not have considered like:
- Avoid being alone in a house with your romantic partner by inviting others to be there too.
- Talk with your partner about your decision to wait so that you are both on the same page.
- Think through and practice ways to respond if your partner is pressuring you to have sex.
Your first love can be a formative and unforgettable experience. Instead of focusing on worry, celebrate what your teen is going through – an important rite of passage and a crucial part of growing up and forming their identity.
Talking with your teen about love, relationships, and sex doesn’t have to be a cringe-worthy experience. Approach it with love and care, and you’ll find it can be a powerful conversation that strengthens your relationship. Experiencing teenage love is part of the beautiful process of growing up and discovering one’s identity. Embrace it with positive energy – and remember, you’ve got this.