Therapy Can Set Teens Up For Healthy Dating And Relationships In The Present And Future
It likely comes as no surprise that dating is a big topic in therapy sessions with anyone over the age of twelve. Nothing gives people more joy or pain than relationships with others, especially romantic ones. Meaningful connections with friends start at a young age, but adolescence is when romantic relationships move to the forefront.
This shift can be exciting for teens, but tough on parents. Dating and sex can be scary topics to tackle and it can be important for both teens and their parents to get some guidance. For teens, dating matters now, but this is also an opportunity for them to learn foundational lessons for the future.
Just as we do with adults, we want teens to have fun, meaningful, caring relationships and we also want them to be safe. Teens have particular vulnerabilities both because these relationships are new to them and because they can be targets. Therapy can help teach the teen how to be safe and can act as a guidepost for parents, as well. And parents can also rest assured that even if a teen is reluctant to dig into this topic at home, that the therapist is a safe, supportive adult in their kid’s life.
As with so many other tough issues for teens, like substance use and sex, we are so fortunate to have close relationships with our teen patients and are in a position to positively influence them. We get to be those supportive adults (who aren’t their parents!) in their lives that can help them learn these lessons and steady them when they stumble.
So what does it mean to date safe? Dating safely does not just refer to safe sexual practices (though that is important, too!). Dating safe emotionally can look like a lot of things and therapy can be a place to set a teen up for success in this respect.
Even with that initial burst of infatuation that is present in all romantic relationships, it is important for a teen to learn to build up trust gradually and not dive headfirst into a relationship. Going slow and steady helps the new couple get to know each other over time to see if they are right for each other. While it might feel good to dive in headfirst, it can be quite scary to realize weeks or months later that things are not what they initially appeared to be.
It is also important for teens to be aware of abusive or unacceptable behaviors in relationships. There is some abuse that is perhaps obvious or self-explanatory (i.e. your partner should never hit you), but what about shoving? Or breaking something in your presence? Where does the line for acceptable behavior end and begin? What does one do when this happens? And furthermore, even if a teen knows that it is not appropriate for a partner to put their hands on them, when you love someone, leaving a dangerous situation can be easier said than done. Additionally sexual assault and date rape can vary on a spectrum and having an open dialogue about consent is imperative.
Additionally, it is also imperative for teens to learn the “campsite rule.” Sex columnist Dan Savage coined this term, which means that when you leave a relationship, you should leave the other person in better or the same condition that they came to you in. Plainly stated, you should be kind and respectful of those you are in relationships with, even if things go south. This mostly refers to relationships where there is an age or experience disparity, but it can be universally applicable to all relationships. It’s never too early for teens to learn not just how to be protective of their own hearts, but protective of others, as well.
Fortunately, we are living in the age of the #MeToo movement and questions of how we should treat others and expect to be treated is increasingly present in the mainstream on a day-to-day basis. This makes our jobs as therapists easier, in some respects, and helps normalize and make this conversation less shameful. But even with this public dialogue happening around us, therapy can be a place for teens to process and internalize this message and understand better how it might apply to them.
Dating in the Social Media Age
For many parents of teens, their experience dating was quite different than their kids. They did not have dating apps or social media to contend with and, what the heck is a “finsta” account again? It’s challenging for kids to know more than their parents about this online realm and it is equally hard for parents to know how much or how little to regulate these things.
In addition, social media is yet another space for gossip, bullying, and peer pressure to flourish and another way for vulnerable or inappropriate content to be passed around. It is important for teens to be aware of how to utilize the online space safely. A lot of times, there can be a communication breakdown between parent and child about social media because the child feels like the parent is trying to limit or control them. However, a therapist is a step removed from the family unit and can help the teen to understand reasons why some restraint and limits with social media might be healthy and positive.
In our teen therapy practice, we have the privilege of being able to speak both “parent” and “teen” in regard to social media. Even though we come from an older generation, we hear from the teens we work with about all the ins and outs of their experiences with social media, which makes us quite savvy in this respect. Simultaneously, we also understand the ways in which social media can take over or make a teen vulnerable, which makes setting limits crucial.
Getting the Ball Rolling with Mini-Risks (a.k.a. Flirting 101)
For some teens (and adults, too!) when there is attraction present, it can be hard to figure out what comes next. Asking someone out and making your attraction known involves putting yourself way out on a limb. For teens, not only is this new and scary, but there is also the added visibility of peers and the school environment. Who has a crush on whom and who got asked out or dumped is all fodder for the rumor mill and can add an extra layer of complication and dread to putting one’s neck out.
Just as with adults, to prepare a teen to get the ball rolling with a crush, therapy can teach non-verbal cues and how to take mini-risks, which is essentially flirting. When you take a mini-risk, you are subtly expressing your attraction in a way that is not too overt, but it is an invitation for the other party to reciprocate. A mini-risk can be something as small as making eye contact and smiling, or making physical contact and touching someone’s arm. If they are reciprocated, teens can feel more confident and prepared for when they actually go ahead and verbalize that they want to go out with that person.
The Inevitable Rejection of Dating
Whether it is a crush who is not interested or the end of a relationship, nothing cuts to the core like heartbreak. During this time, it is important to support the teen and let them be upset or whatever they need to be. We, as adults, may have the perspective that a teen will recover and move on to more fruitful and serious relationships, but that does not make the heartbreak any less real. For parents, allowing your teen to be feel and validating those feelings can help them recover and can also bring you closer to them. It is an opportunity for them to see you as a support in a new way.
But that doesn’t mean parents and other adults have to throw perspective out the window, either. After leaving room for those hurt feelings, gradually helping them zoom out and realize that they will love again is also immensely useful. And when they feel ready, the teen can reflect on the relationship, process what they learned and how they might do their next relationship differently.
Therapy can be an excellent space for both of these things: the airing out of feelings that come after a breakup, as well as the learning part. Additionally, therapy can also help a teen articulate exactly what they need during this time so they are able to get needed help–the type of support that they need at this time–as they heal and continue on their journey.