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Teaching Healthy Romantic Relationships

February 13, 2012

My 6-year-old son recently informed my husband and I that he has a girlfriend. I’ve met her when dropping him off at school in the morning, and (I have to admit) she is truly adorable. Little Taylor wears pink, sparkly sneakers, dresses and tiny little glasses. She appears to be sweet and friendly. They seem to be nothing more than friends that are of different genders. However, my husband and I still took this as an opportunity to discuss healthy relationships with him. My husband said to my son, “You know, six is pretty young to have a girlfriend.” My son’s response was, “Yeah, I know… but I don’t care. I like her.”  Whoa!  I was surprised at his level of assuredness and, to be honest, a little scared. Who was this little girl, anyway?  On that note, who was this little boy? Whether we realized it or not, he was growing up, and this was a conversation that needed to happen!

I found myself feeling uncertain about what to say. He’s my son, and he’s young. My instinct as a parent was to say, “No!”. But I could see that my son really likes being her friend, and says that he thinks she’s pretty. I guess when you’re six, that’s pretty much what you’re looking for! As a family, we started talking. We discussed friendships. We discussed “liking someone”. We talked about how people’s feelings change and that Taylor may not want to be my son’s girlfriend forever, and, at some point, he may end up feeling the same way, too.

It was interesting to me that this conversation with my kindergartener left me so unsure.  We did not have to discuss safe sex, Facebook or date rape. Compared to what the typical parent of an adolescent has to cover, we had it easy. In my professional life, as a therapist with the Teen Xpress program, I have these conversations comfortably with teens everyday, but things certainly do change when it’s your kid.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the topic of healthy relationships is an important conversation to have with our kids. Ultimately, as parents, we want our kids to be happy.  That includes, eventually, finding happiness in relationships with others- friendships and romantic relationships. We teach our kids how to share, how to be nice, how to say hello… all vital skills in developing friendships. But, what are we teaching them about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend?

Know Thyself

We can’t really know who we like until we know what we like. We won’t know what we like until we know ourselves. Encourage your child to think about what makes him or her unique. Spend time thinking and talking about your kids’ interests and beliefs. Engaging in activities with them will help them and you learn just what kind of person you’re living with!

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Kids and teens will often seek out a relationship that mirrors one that they have already seen. That could be relationships that they have seen on TV or based on songs from music that they listen to. They could be seeking out relationships that match their friends’ relationships…  or what you, as their parent, does. As the parent, we have a huge responsibility to teach by example. One of the most valuable lessons our kids will learn about relationships is taught by who WE choose to be with and by who we don’t.

Self Worth

As parents, we have the job of making sure our kids know that they are the most amazing people we have ever met. All of the little things we do and say add up. Catch your kid being good, and heap on the praise. Tell them, “thank you”. Let them know that you appreciate them, you are proud of them and that you like spending time with them. All of these moments will add up in your child’s mind, and they will feel that they are important. Special. Worthy. When they feel good about who they are as a person, they will be more likely to seek out a partner that treats them as such.

“The Talk”

One big, awkward talk about the birds and the bees might not work for you or your child. You and your child may end up feeling overwhelmed. Instead, try to make it an ongoing dialogue so you can cover the basics: health, safety, anatomy and rules. Include the abstract topics such as self-esteem, decision-making and values as well.

Expect the Unexpected

It is hard to predict exactly who are kids are going to be, who they will be attracted to or when that will happen. I did not expect to have my 6-year-old be so matter of fact that he “likes” Taylor.  However, maybe I should have been. Even with our careful monitoring of media and adult conversation topics, my son gets bombarded with messages about relationships all the time.

Be “The One”

Kids grow quickly. Before they meet that special person that rocks their world, be “The One” for them as long as you can! It’s natural for teens to start to rely on friends for information and to move away from talking to their parents. However, be that person that they come to with questions and problems as long as they will have it! Hear their concerns without judgment. Educate them. So many of my friends say that their “talk” with their parents consisted of “just don’t do it”. While it certainly summarizes how we as parents feel, it does not give our kids the information, compassion or guidance they need to make it through this part of life.

The bottom line is, we as parents, are all learning as we go.  Our kids did not come with instruction manuals, and we are doing the best we can. What I say to my son when he’s six, versus what I will say to him when he is sixteen are going to be two very different things. Ten years from now, he will be different, and so will I.  However, we will still be a team, and the plan and hope is to face this challenge as well as all the others, together.

What are your thoughts on bringing up this tricky topic with your children?