A friend recently asked me to write about the appropriate age for youth to have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Much depends on each family’s values and customs. Often, I find parents have different concerns depending on whether they are discussing sons or daughters.
Regardless of gender, I believe it’s important to think about your expectations and concerns, then discuss them with your child. Talk with your child about healthy friendships and relationships. Qualities that make a good friend carry over into relationships that youth define in a romantic way (such as using the term “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”). Honesty and trustworthiness are admirable qualities in both friendships and romantic relationships.
In addition, it’s important not to underestimate your child’s knowledge of sexuality, faulty though it may be as she or he soaks up information from peers and media.
Facts from parents, though not always comfortable to give, can dispel a lot of myths that persist in teen culture. Share your concerns and discuss possible scenarios ahead of time. This will increase the possibility of thoughtful, responsible choices when the time comes.
Supervision, especially for young teens, can help them avoid uncomfortable situations they aren’t ready to handle on their own. For ideas about where to start talking, check out “Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children about Sex and Character” by Pepper Schwartz and Dominic Cappello.
Whether a relationship is platonic or romantic, knowing characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships can help you determine when you or your child might need help:
• Healthy relationships are built on trust.
• Partners support each other, are honest and feel safe.
• Partners have a life outside the relationship, with their own friends and own activities
• Both partners feel comfortable making their own decisions and compromising when necessary.
• Sexuality in any form is mutually consensual, developmentally appropriate, and there is not a power differential in the relationship based on age, position of authority or anything else.
• Conflicts are resolved through open and honest communication.
• There are more good times in the relationship than bad.
Red flags or signs that one might consider getting help or leaving a relationship include:
• Constant criticism, name-calling, put-downs, insults or embarrassing a partner on purpose.
• Isolation or extreme jealousy, controlling friendships and/or who the person sees or how he/she spends their time.
Threats or use of force by throwing things, destroying property or threatening to hurt the partner (or someone he or she cares about).
• Sexuality may include coercion, manipulation, guilt, threats or unwanted touching.
• One partner makes all the decisions.
• Having more bad times in the relationship than good.
For children, relationship dynamics begin with family and friends. Talk with your children about expectations of respect and trust in friendships — and what to do if or when that is broken. Model healthy relationships in your life, and get help if you need it.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a personal life and parent coach in Federal Way. She facilitates faith and sexuality classes for youth, and parenting classes in the area. Contact:
Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-562-6025.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.
Teen dating violence resource line: (253) 798-4328
Domestic Violence Helpline: (253) 798-4166 or Toll Free (800) 764-2420