There’s nothing like your first love. But with hormones, heartbreak and homework all competing for our teen’s attention, ‘love’ is usually more stressful than blissful. Mandy Stephens, founder of puberty and relationships service Let’s Chat Education, gives us the lowdown on young relationships.
We never related to Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” more than in our teenage years. Your girl or boyfriend moving schools? Fights with friends over “who liked them first”? The person you like not acknowledging your existence? It’s the definition of heartbreak. Now, imagine social media and smartphones are thrown into the mix.
“Kids are surrounded by sexualised messages, which is influencing their desires to enter into serious relationships a lot earlier than they probably should be,” says Mandy. “When kids are given unlimited access to online platforms and streaming services, it’s difficult to control what they are being exposed to – and there is a direct link between what they are exposed to and how they behave.”
Mandy explains that tweens and teens can have a lot of difficulty differentiating between friendships and relationships, and require a high level of guidance, support, reassurance and role modeling as a result. Whatever they are experiencing in their relationships – no matter what kind of relationship that may be – shouldn’t be happening in isolation.
“It’s important to have lots of really positive conversations around being safe, knowing your body and feeling good about yourself and your friends, so that they don’t feel the need to be defined by a relationship,” says Mandy. “Any serious relationships they do have must be equal, consensual and between two people of similar ages.”
If your child has access to any kind of device, Mandy recommends you do, too. Privacy should be gradual, and will depend on each child’s behaviour.
“Safety comes before privacy,” says Mandy.
When it comes to tackling tricky topics like hormones and even sex with your older teens, Mandy says it is most important that they feel supported.
“We answer questions about sex on a continuum – how much info we share depends on their age, their need to know and the context of the question,” says Mandy. “Your kids won’t necessarily realise their hormones are playing a role in their behaviour, so you may need to be quite literal while remembering to take on a supportive and positive role.”
And finally – the heartbreak.
“If your tween or teen is experiencing their first heartbreak, it’s useful to normalise it by relating it to friendship issues – in reality, it is no different than a falling out with a close friend,” says Mandy. “We have countless relationships throughout our lives; some end well, others don’t. Again, it’s about building their resilience and having plenty of conversations.
“When you are talking often and staying in the loop,you will notice the things your kids talk about. Don’t expect that they will already know about everything they are being exposed to. Instead, equip them with the safeguards they will need to grow into healthy, happy adults.”
Mandy’s top tips
- Be ready to talk: It all comes back to education and communication, so talk openly and often. Research shows the earlier we talk to children about puberty, the more risk-taking behaviours decrease later in life.
- Use teachable moments: Talk about growing up and puberty when opportunities arise to normalise the issues they may be fearful of or concerned about.
- Consider the question behind the question: If your child comes home with a word or a question that piques your interest or concern, ask where they heard it or why they’re asking. This will allow you to understand the context.
- Be present and involved, and stay positive: Take on a supportive role, rather than shaming or blaming them. Remember, safety and support go hand in hand.