September 08, 2014 —

Is your teen dating? Does your teen have a romantic interest in someone, and that interest is returned? That's pretty much the most basic definition of "dating." Romantic relationships are intensely important to teens, both for emotional and chemical reasons.

Teens are experiencing rapid and startling brain changes, and their limbic systems (among other parts) are ramping up for the most activity of their lives. This means that all emotions are becoming more intense, and their ability to make great, careful decisions just got trickier. Additionally, they are actually growing more receptors for the brain hormone oxytocin, which is linked to bonding and other intimate experiences. So it's fair to say that, chemically, teens are ready for love.

Oxytocin - the "bonding" chemical - also drives us to wonder and worry what others think of us. That furthers a teen's normal desire to be accepted by and in the good graces of those who are most important to him or her. It's easy to see how a teenager in a romantic relationship could feel the need to engage in risky behaviors if they believe it's important to the relationship.

So, what's a parent to do? Your teen is "into" someone and you have a bad feeling about this kid. You worry that your child will be led into a risky behavior if they stay together. Do you forbid them to hang out?

When you don't like the person your teen is dating:

  1. Accept all their feelings. We absolutely cannot tell our kids how they feel, and they will put up walls if we try. So, instead of shutting off communication by telling your teen he's not in love or telling your daughter to calm down, accept their emotions as real and important. This demonstrates the respect we have for our kids, and the respect we want them to have for us.
  2. Get to know your teen's love interest. Invite him over, include her in family outings or events. The biggest reason teens give for not accepting a parent's opinion about their relationship is "You don't even know him!" This belief (like in Shakespeare's tragedy about young love) puts your teen in the role of champion - she must defend her love and guard against... you. The more you genuinely strive to know (not just gather evidence against!) and appreciate this person for whatever good qualities he or she has, the more credibility you'll gain with your own child.
  3. Guide behavior. Focus on what your teen is doing, not how he or she is feeling. Respect their feelings, and challenge them to be responsible. Be clear that you don't "hate" this person they love, you are considering only the choices he may make because of the relationship. Encourage your teen to show their love for this new person by being the best version of themselves when they're together, not the riskiest.
  4. Set limits. You do not have to allow your teen to be alone in her bedroom with this person. You can put boundaries on the activities your teen engages in, and the behaviors you'll tolerate. Just remember to keep respecting that emotion!

Trusting our teens and respecting them are not the same thing. Guiding the way they think about and handle romance is an important part of parenting teens, and will protect them from all kinds of risky behavior.

Doctor G (Deborah Gilboa, MD) - Family Physician, international speaker, author and mom of four – is a regular contributor to CBS’ Pittsburgh Today Live and ABC’s Windy City Live. From one minute videos on making your life easier while building kids’ character to her downloadable guides (chores at every age, boundaries for tech use and more) Doctor G makes parenting more simple and more effective. Her new book Get the Behavior You Want... Without Being the Parent You Hate! released this fall! Find her on Facebook or Twitter!