How serious is too serious when it comes to teen relationships? I’ve had to ask myself this question a few times over the past few years. Truth be told, it makes me more than a little uncomfortable when my kids want to spend all of their waking moments with their current “like interest” (I have never been able to use the term “love interest” when referring to the other kids my kids were dating). After talking with hundreds of other parents of teens as an Empowering Parents 1-on-1 Coach, I know I’m in good company. Many parents struggle with knowing what limits to set with how much time they should allow their child to spend with their boyfriend/girlfriend and what they can do if they think their child is in a relationship that’s too serious.
My son started “dating” when he was 13. Dating at this age meant eating lunch together at school, going to the community dances, and posting on Facebook that you’re “in a relationship.” He and his “girlfriend” would buy each other red carnations during the Valentine’s Day fundraiser at school. At this point, I wasn’t worried. Still, by the time he was 15, his relationships were lasting longer and he seemed to be getting more serious. How did I know? He started to buy “serious” gifts, like roses and heart–shaped lockets. He started asking me to take him to the mall so he could buy a one month anniversary gift. While part of me found it to be a sweet gesture, another part of me worried he was getting too serious at his age. Being that he is my firstborn, I was at a loss as to what, if anything, I should do. I thought about forbidding him from dating, but knew it was probably a little late for that. Besides, “forbidding” a child from doing anything often doesn’t result in compliance; more often results in secretive, rebellious behavior. The “wait, watch and see” approach is the one I opted for in the end.
I did implement some limits as to where, when and how long he and his girlfriend-of-the-moment could spend time together. I opted for situations where there was going to be supervision: our house when I was home, the girlfriend’s house when a parent was going to be home, chaperoned dances and other public outings. How much time depended upon whether or not other expectations were being met, such as not being behind with household responsibilities or work in school. If there was missing schoolwork or chores were starting to suffer, I limited the time they would get to spend with each other until these responsibilities were fulfilled consistently once again.
As for allowing my son to buy gifts for what I considered to be “temporary” relationships, I let him buy what he wanted, as long as he had the money for it. There were discussions around a gift being a gift, with no strings attached; buying something for someone you really like and care about didn’t mean they would like or care about you more, nor did it mean they would “owe” you anything in return. A couple of times he got his feelings hurt when he bought an expensive gift ($30 dollar necklace) for a one-month or six-month anniversary and then was broken up with shortly after. I offered him empathy and a listening ear. Even though I wanted to take the pain away, solace was all I could really offer him. As hard as it was to see him sad and heartbroken, I knew he was learning an important life lesson, and skills for dealing with future heartache. Unfortunately, none of us are immune from that.
Adolescent relationships, with their giddy, head-over-heels bliss and forlorn heartache, help us to learn how to deal with the ups and downs that are an inherent part of any relationship. As parents, we recognize the fleeting quality of an adolescent relationship and know that as much as our child tries to convince us he/she is “in love,” chances are the relationship isn’t going to last more than a few months at most. Finding a balance between supervising activities, while still allowing for a sort of emotional exploration, is a good approach to dealing with adolescent dating.
So, how serious is too serious? I guess that depends upon your perspective and your personal belief system. Ultimately, you decide what you are and are not comfortable with as far your son or daughter dating.
**EDITOR’S NOTE** This article is intended to address teen dating relationships in general. If you are concerned that your son or daughter may be involved in a relationship that is abusive or violent, we encourage you to contact your local domestic violence project, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(799-7233), to find out your options to help your child to stay safe.