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No parent looks forward to "the talk." But there are ways to make the conversation easier. Check out these tips from Rosalind Wiseman, best-selling author, mom and Family Circle columnist, about how to help your child navigate the murky waters of relationships, sex—and, yes, love. If you have a question of your own, e-mail askrosalind@FamilyCircle.com, and your answer may appear in the magazine. (Be sure to read How to Have the Sex Talk with Your Teen for more tips about how to make the conversation more relaxed and how to get your point across.)
Q. My daughter says she has a boyfriend. How should I respond? She's only 12!
A. Without freaking out, ask your daughter what having a boyfriend means to her, keeping your questions positive so she'll feel more comfortable sharing with you. Did they meet at school? How did she know she liked him? When did she find out he liked her? While you have the right to tell her she can't have a boyfriend at 12, remember that "couples" this age are mostly too scared to talk to each other without their friends around. Regardless, tell her your expectations for how a boy should treat her, and that you are always there to talk. Also, encourage her to confide in her dad or another trusted male. Start teaching her that she deserves to be treated with respect, always.
Q. I'm scared my 13-year-old is too advanced. She told her stepmom that she let her boyfriend touch her and she touched him. They broke up, then a few days later I heard her on the phone saying "I love you" to another boy. Can you suggest books for her about self-esteem and relationships?
A. Absolutely! Right now, my favorites are The Girls' Guide to Guys (Three Rivers Press) and The Blueprint for My Girls in Love (Fireside) . Ideally, they'll be conversation starters. For example, you each read a chapter and then talk about it. Don't ask personal questions, which may make her freeze up. Instead try, "How realistic do you think the author is?" or "Do you see kids acting like the ones in the book?" Also remember that your goal isn't to make your daughter feel ashamed for wanting a boyfriend. What she needs is to understand why she's so pulled to have a relationship and how to maintain her boundaries while she's in one.
Q. I'm in a bind. My 12-year-old confided in my brother that she had two boys in the house when we weren't there, which is totally against our rules. She adores her uncle, and if I punish her she'll know where I got the information and stop talking to him. If I don't do anything, she'll do it again!
A. Suggest your brother have the following conversation with your daughter: "I know this is hard, but your mom needs to know about the boys in the house. So I'd like you to tell her—alone or with me." Your daughter may respond by saying, "Do I really have to?" or "Okay, I'll do it when I'm 25." He should insist that it needs to be done within 48 to 72 hours or he will tell. I have worked with a lot of kids in your daughter's position and almost without fail after I "force" them to come clean, they're amazed at how much better it feels to confess than to wait anxiously to be caught.
Q. My seventh grade daughter says another girl in her class is sexually active. The girl's mom is just an acquaintance, and I don't even know if the story is true. What do you advise?
A. Here's what I don't suggest: "Hi, Kathy, my daughter just came home and told me your daughter is hooking up with all the boys in the grade. Just thought you should know. Bye!" Instead, ask your daughter who's the best counselor at school. Set up a meeting with that person and tell her what you've heard, saying, "I don't know how accurate this information is, but I figured there's a chance this girl may need some help." Tell your daughter why you're going, as in, "I'm making sure a professional is looking out for your classmate." And be very clear that she's not to gossip about any of this with her friends.
Q. My 10-year-old just told me he and his girlfriend plan to stay together until they graduate from college, then get married. How can he be so serious about this girl at his age?
A. Serious for a 10-year-old is a relative thing—the chance that this girl is your future daughter-in-law is slim to none. But that doesn't mean you should pat your son on the head and send him on his way. Use this as an opportunity to validate his feelings while not necessarily agreeing with him, a skill that comes in handy with temperamental tweens and teens. Ask him to talk with you about why he likes this girl and to describe specific ways he and his friend are showing each other respect. Finish by reminding him of your rules for his conduct in all his relationships.
Q. Our kids aren't allowed on the phone after 9 p.m., but my 12-year-old daughter keeps getting calls from one boy as late as 12:30. How can we get him to stop?
A. On the off chance this boy is using your land line, keep the phone close by. When he calls, answer in your most intimidating parent way (meaning, don't threaten him but be very clear that he can't call after 9). If he's reaching your daughter on her cell, then she needs to surrender it to you (which, by the way, all teens should do when they go to bed). If her phone rings, answer it exactly the way I advised if he were calling the house. Be strict with this rule now, and you'll save yourself a lot of headaches as your kids get older—by, say, intercepting that after-hours text message about the unsupervised party down the block.
Q. My 10-year-old son is asking me a lot of questions about sex. I managed okay with our daughter but was hoping my husband could handle this one. My son says he feels more comfortable talking to me. Do you have any suggestions?
A. Here's the deal: If your son wants to talk, you talk. Yes, it can be awkward. My personal favorite, from one of my boys, is, "Wait, do people have sex even when they don't want a baby? Why would they do that? Do you and Dad do that?" Even if you're blushing, tell your son how glad you are that he approached you, and reassure him that you're happy to discuss whatever is on his mind.
But when the conversation is winding down say, "I also want you to feel good about going to your father, so next time the two of you are hanging out, ask him your questions too." Then privately let your husband know he's on deck.
Q. My 13-year-old has made it her mission to find a boyfriend and is acting so clingy that she has driven away all the boys she used to be friends with. How can I get her to slow down?
A. My worry isn't about her boyfriend search; my concern is her inability to see how her behavior is pushing people away. You didn't mention if she has a similar history with girlfriends, but this is often the case—and it usually backfires in the same way. In other words, kids feel forced to be mean to her because she's not recognizing their personal boundaries. So you should focus on increasing her social intelligence. I would have her work with a counselor who specializes in adolescent social and emotional skill-building to help her learn to read herself and others more effectively.
Q. My 12-year-old son is 5'9" and very good looking. The problem is, girls ages 14 and 15 find him attractive and actively pursue him. How can I make him understand that they're too old and he shouldn't be encouraging them?
A. Don't assume that boys always welcome these advances. They're under tremendous pressure from our culture to look like they want attention from girls, even if they don't. Today it's not uncommon for older girls in high school to target 9th-grade boys for pursuit, just like 12th-grade boys have done for years to 9th-grade girls.
Watch your opinions of these girls. It's normal but not good parenting to judge them harshly (you know what I mean). Tell your son, "Because you're tall and good looking, older girls will pursue you. You could be happy, nervous, or not like it. You could even have all those feelings at once. What's important is that 1. Being attractive doesn't mean you're more special than anyone else. 2. Just because they like you doesn't mean you have to do anything with them that makes you uncomfortable. 3. You must always treat girls and women with respect, but you have to treat yourself with respect, too." (For more conversation tips, read How to Talk to Your Teen about Sex.)