About pre-teen and teenage romance and relationships
Romantic relationships are a major developmental milestone.
These relationships come with all the other changes going on during adolescence – physical, social and emotional. They’re linked to the way pre-teens and teenagers explore body image, independence, privacy and identity. For some young people, these relationships might involve exploring gender and sexual orientation too.
Teenagers can spend a lot of time thinking about romantic relationships. And these relationships can bring many emotional ups and downs for your child – and sometimes for the whole family. But they’re leading your child towards a deeper capacity to care, share and develop intimate relationships in the future.
When pre-teen and teenage romance and relationships start
There isn’t a ‘right’ age to start having relationships. But changes often happen around these ages:
- At 9-11 years, your child might start to show more independence from your family and more interest in friends.
- At 10-14 years, your child might start feeling attracted to others.
- At 15-19 years, romantic relationships can become central to teenage social lives.
It’s also common for children to have no interest in romantic relationships until their late teens or early 20s. Some young people choose to focus on study, sport or other interests.
For LGBTQ+ teenagers, other things can influence when they start having relationships. LGBTQ+ teenagers might find it hard to ‘come out’ or they might feel they need to pretend to be straight to fit in. They might also feel worried about prejudice, discrimination or bullying.
Before your child starts 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 ideals 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 pre-teen and 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. In these years, relationships might last only a few weeks or months.
If your child wants to go out alone with someone special, talking about it with your child can help you get a sense of whether they’re ready. Does your child want a partner 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.
The most influential role models for teenagers are the grown-ups in their lives. You can be a positive role model for respectful relationships and friendships by treating your partner, friends and family with care and respect. Talking respectfully about people of all genders and sexual orientations also lets your child know you think everyone is equal and valued.
Same-sex attraction and relationships for pre-teens and teenagers
For some young people, sexual development during adolescence will include same-sex attraction, experiences and relationships. Other young people might develop bisexual attraction.
Some pre-teens and teenagers might be quite clear about how they feel and who they’re attracted to. Others might feel confused if their feelings and attractions seem different from what their friends are experiencing or what they see in the media.
Either way, responding positively and non-judgmentally is a good first step. If you think you might have trouble being calm and positive, you and your child might be able to talk about your feelings with another trusted adult.
Sexuality develops over time. Exploration and experimentation with sexuality is normal and common. If you accept your child for who they are right now, it’s good for your child’s self-acceptance and overall wellbeing. Your support can help your child navigate this period of exploration and self-discovery.
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 consent, 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 let your child know that you’re there to listen, they’ll be more likely to come to you with questions and concerns.
Talking with pre-teens and teenagers about romance, relationships and sex
It’s good to encourage conversations in your family about feelings, friendships and family relationships. This can help your child feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with you as they start to get romantically interested in others. And these conversations can also bring up other important topics, like treating other people kindly, breaking up kindly and respecting other people’s boundaries.
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, ground rules and consequences for breaking the rules. For example, you might talk about how much time your child spends with their partner versus how much time they spend studying, or whether it’s OK for their partner to stay over.
You might also want to agree on some strategies for what your child should do if they feel unsafe or threatened.
It’s also healthy and common for young people to talk to their friends. 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. Our article on difficult conversations has tips.
If you and your child can have comfortable, open discussions about sex, sexuality and relationships, it can actually delay the start of sexual activity for your child. It can also mean your child has safer sexual activity when they do start.
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 on social media.
You might expect your child to be sad and emotional if their 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
- PFLAG – Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Relationships for pre-teens and teenagers with disability
Pre-teens and teenagers with disability have the same interest in – and need for information about – romance, relationships and intimacy as other teenagers. Rates of sexual activity for young people with disability are the same as those for other teenagers.
Make sure your child has developmentally appropriate sex education at home and at school. Your health professional, local community resources and relevant support groups should be able to give you help or advice.