About teenage relationships
Romantic relationships are a major developmental milestone. They come with all the other changes going on during adolescence – physical, social and emotional. And they’re linked to your child’s growing interest in body image and looks, independence and privacy.
Romantic relationships can bring many emotional ups and downs for your child – and sometimes for the whole family. The idea that your child might have these kinds of feelings can sometimes be a bit confronting for you. But these feelings are leading your child towards a deeper capacity to care, share and develop intimate relationships.
When teenage relationships start
There isn’t a ‘right age’ to start having relationships – every child is different, and every family will feel differently about this issue. But here are some averages:
- From 9-11 years, your child might start to show more independence from your family and more interest in friends.
- From 10-14 years, your child might want to spend more time in mixed gender groups, which might eventually end up in a romantic relationship.
- From 15-19 years, romantic relationships can become central to social life. Friendships might become deeper and more stable.
Many teenagers spend a lot of time thinking and talking about being in a relationship. In these years, teenage relationships might last only a few weeks or months. It’s also normal for children to have no interest in romantic relationships until their late teens. Some choose to focus on schoolwork, sport or other interests.
Before children start having relationships, they might have one or more crushes.
An identity crush is when your child finds someone they admire and want to be like.
A romantic crush is the beginning of romantic feelings. It’s about your child imagining another person as perfect or ideal. This can tell you a lot about the things that your child finds attractive in people.
Romantic crushes tend not to last very long because ideas of perfection often break down when your child gets to know the other person better. But your child’s intense feelings are real, so it’s best to take crushes seriously and not make fun of them.
Early teenage relationships
Younger teenagers usually hang out together in groups. They might meet up with someone special among friends, and then gradually spend more time with that person alone.
If your child wants to go out alone with someone special, talking about it together can help you get a sense of whether your child is ready. Does your child want a boyfriend or girlfriend just because their friends do? Does your child think it’s the only way to go out and have fun? Or does your child want to spend time getting to know someone better?
If the person your child is interested in is older or younger, it could be worth mentioning that people of different ages might want different things from relationships.
Talking about teenage relationships with your child
Your family plays a big part in the way your child thinks about teenage relationships.
When you encourage conversations about feelings, friendships and family relationships, it can help your child feel confident to talk about teenage relationships in general. If your child knows what respectful relationships look like in general, they can relate this directly to romantic relationships.
These conversations might mean that your child will feel more comfortable sharing feelings with you as they start to get romantically interested in others. And the conversations can also bring up other important topics, like treating other people kindly, breaking up kindly and respecting other people’s boundaries.
Having conversations with your child about sex and relationships from a young age might mean your child feels more comfortable to ask you questions as they move into adolescence.
In some ways, talking about romantic and/or sexual teenage relationships is like talking about friendships or going to a party. Depending on your values and family rules, you and your child might need to discuss behaviour and ground rules, and consequences for breaking the rules. For example, you might talk about how much time your child spends with their girlfriend or boyfriend versus how much time they spend studying, or whether it’s OK for their girlfriend or boyfriend to stay over.
You might also want to agree on some strategies for what your child should do if they feel unsafe or threatened.
Young people might also talk to their friends, which is healthy and normal. They still need your back-up, though, so keeping the lines of communication open is important.
Some conversations about relationships can be difficult, especially if you feel your child isn’t ready for a relationship. Check out our article about difficult conversations for more tips on how to handle them.
Sex and teenage relationships
If your child is in a relationship, it can bring up questions about sex and intimacy.
Not all teenage relationships include sex, but most teenagers will experiment with sexual behaviour at some stage. This is why your child needs clear information on contraception, safe sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
This could also be your chance to talk together about dealing with unwanted sexual and peer pressure. If you keep the lines of communication open and let your child know that you’re there to listen, your child is more likely to come to you with questions and concerns.
Same-sex attraction and early sexual experimentation
For some young people, sexual development during adolescence will include same-sex attraction and experiences.
For 3-10% of young people, the start of puberty will mean realising they’re attracted to people of the same sex. A larger number of young people might develop bisexual attraction.
If your child feels confused about their feelings or attraction to someone else, responding positively and non-judgmentally is a good first step. A big part of this is being clear about your own feelings about same-sex attraction. If you think you might have trouble being calm and positive, there might be another adult whom both you and your child trust and with whom your child could talk about their feelings.
Dealing with break-ups in teenage relationships
Break-ups and broken hearts are part of teenage relationships. To make things worse, teenage break-ups might be played out in public – maybe at school or social media.
You might expect your child to be sad and emotional if a relationship ends. It might not seem this way at the time, but this is part of learning how to cope with difficult decisions and disappointments. Your child might need time and space, a shoulder to cry on, and a willing ear to listen. Your child might also need some distraction.
Active listening can help you pick up on your child’s needs. But if your child seems sad or even depressed for more than a few weeks after a break-up, it might be worth getting some advice from a health professional, like your GP.
Extra help with teenage relationships
Many people and services can help you with support and information – in person, online or on the phone. You could try:
- your GP
- the school counsellor
- your local community health centre
- Parentline in your state or territory
- Family Planning Alliance Australia
- Relationships Australia.
Teenage relationships for children with additional needs
Children with additional needs have the same interest in – and need for information about – sex and relationships as other teenagers. Rates of sexual activity for young people with additional needs are the same as those for teenagers without additional needs.
Make sure your child has developmentally appropriate information about sex and sexual development at home and at school. Your health professional, local community resources and relevant support groups should be able to give you help or advice.
A person’s sexual orientation is to do with romantic or sexual attraction. It’s different from their gender identity, which is a person’s sense of who they are – male, female, both or neither.