We talk to our daughter about sex; protecting her from any negative consequences has trumped anything else we believe. Science is no longer impeded by mistaken assumptions like “teen dating is trivial and transitory.” Researchers have found that dating does effect teens’ development—identifying both the positive and negative consequences. The negative range from developing concerns about body image, to feeling anxious, to being depressed, to substance abuse, and more. Yet we’re still dismissive when we hear that teens lack relationship skills.
One way for your daughter to avoid the negative consequences of dating is to have information and skills to deal with her romantic experiences. No kidding. Who can make a good choice when they don’t understand what’s going on? Have you noticed how difficult it is to transfer information and skills—to know what to do—when you come up against new parenting experiences, for example? Can you imagine what it’s like for your daughter to know how to deal with things that come up in relationships, such as jealousy or a boyfriend not making enough time for her, flirting with other girls, cheating on her, or breaking up with her?
Young women need specific skills to develop healthy relationships, says Dr. Joanne Davila in her latest research paper “Assessing romantic competence in adolescence: The Romantic Competence Interview (2009).” In the appendix are some of the interview questions, like “What would you think, feel and do if you were dating someone and you were unhappy about how the relationship was going?” How would your daughter answer that question? Would she say that she would cry and be upset, but wouldn’t break up? Or would she tell her boyfriend what was wrong in order to see if they could change it. The former illustrates less relationship competence and the latter more.
Can your daughter identify what her feelings are, articulate to her boyfriend what’s wrong and be willing to exit if what is wrong doesn’t change? Probably not. So what do you do? Use healthy relationship criteria—met needs—to help your daughter understand what’s going on. A Prince meets her needs. A Frog doesn’t.
Hurt feelings grow out of unmet needs. Use your teen’s experiences with friends as a model for her romantic relationships. Say your daughter is frustrated: Beth, her best friend, never wants to do what she wants to do. Help her name and define that unmet need! You can say, “Oh, you don’t feel your ideas are important to Beth; she doesn’t include your feelings and needs in her choices.” Helping your daughter learn how to express her needs (and manage her hurt feelings) will give her rock-solid criteria to make choices in a relationship with anyone.
At some point, your daughter will be able to link her own experiences to her needs. Say her boyfriend never has enough time for her, ignores her at parties, cancels plans, and so on. What’s she to do? Armed with “good points”—“You never make time for me” or “You ignore me at parties”—she can talk to her boyfriend about why she doesn’t feel important—and she can choose to break up with him if he doesn’t change. Many teens don’t make choices; they believe life just happens. But by using unmet needs as good reasons to exit, your daughter can make tough self-respect choices.
Think about those two-14 year olds, on Oprah, who believed they were ready to have sex based on, ahem, love. Don’t you want your own daughter to make a choice to have sex with a guy based on what needs he meets for her and how he treats her? Like the need to become familiar with him (knowing if he has character, for example). The need to happily accept how he treats her. The need to value him (being able to tell him what she thinks and feels) and be important to him (knowing that he includes her feelings and needs in his choices). And so on.
It’s a new year, so how about making a resolution to accept that adopting healthy relationship criteria will help your teen make better choices—choosing who her boyfriend is, when to have sex, and whether to stay in a relationship or to exit, for example—and will help her figure out other important stuff like whether or not her boyfriend loves her and if jealousy is a sign that he does. If she is competent but does happen to make a “bad” choice, as we all do at times, she will quickly rebound from that choice and make a new one because she understands what is going on.
Your daughter needs to understand that in a healthy relationship her important needs are met, partners have heart-to-heart conversations, and respect—self-respect, respect for others, and the expectation to be treated respectfully—is mutual. This is essential information. We may be uncomfortable giving our daughter dating advice but we must. If we want her to experience the good consequences of dating—to become more certain of who she is and what she really wants and needs out of a relationship and life.
Kaycee Jane wrote Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends for her own daughter. She blogs at www.frogorprince.ca