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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 16-year-old son has found his first love. He spends all his free time with her, then is on the phone at least a couple hours at night, and that's not counting the IMing and text messaging. Is this relationship too intense?
A. A teenager's first love is a powerful experience, but it's not an excuse to abandon his responsibilities. Set rules about phone and computer use and enforce them. Hover until he hangs up or signs off and review his cell account online to confirm when and for how long he's communicating.
But it's not all about rules. Ask him why he likes her (watch your tone so you don't sound like an interrogator). Then tell him your non-negotiables, including respect (no name calling when they argue) and maintaining relationships with his other friends and his family. Lastly, go over your expectations and values about sex. If he doesn't feel comfortable talking to you, find another adult to speak with him—someone he thinks is cool and who shares your values.
Q. My 16-year-old son is involved with a very troubled girl his age. She told him she was abused as a child and he seems to think it's his job to help her get over it. I'm afraid he's getting trapped in a destructive relationship. What should I do?
A. Your son wants to be her knight in shining armor—but I don't care how old or mature he is, that's way too much responsibility for any person. You want him to learn that one person can't take away another person's pain. Start by helping him come up with boundaries—which you should write down. Like, all deep conversations must occur before 10 p.m. (he shouldn't be talking to her until 2 a.m.). Or, she can't stop him from spending time with other friends or threaten herself or the relationship if he does. Second, tell him that you're really proud that he wants to be a support to someone and that the best way to do that is to maintain his own emotional health. Lastly, if he's obsessed with this girl to the exclusion of his other responsibilities and interests, or is feeling overwhelmed, take him to a therapist who specializes in abuse. He'll need help coming up with an action plan.
Q. When my husband and I learned that our 15-year-old had sex with her boyfriend, we grounded her for a month with no computer or phone, and told her the relationship is over. But I don't want to lose my daughter over this. Assuming she's not pregnant (she says they used condoms), what's the next step we should take?
A. Reread Romeo and Juliet—because that's the dynamic you've just created. Please face the fact that your response didn't address the goals, which are to help your daughter develop into a sexually responsible adult and to have her boyfriend respect your values. De-romanticize this situation quickly by sitting both kids down and explaining several things: While you recognize their affection for each other, you vehemently believe they shouldn't be having sex. But you aren't naive. If people want to get together, they'll figure out a way. Since they've decided they're mature enough to be sexually active, your daughter will get a gynecological exam for pregnancy and STDs. You expect the boyfriend—if he really cares about your daughter—also to be checked by his doctor. Tell them that after this conversation you'll be contacting the other parents so everybody can be on the same page. Conclude by looking the boyfriend in the eye and saying, "Let me be clear that my daughter is precious to me. I am asking you to be a man in the real sense of the word and do the right thing." For more communication tips about intimacy, read How to Have the Sex Talk with Your Teen.
Q. Is it normal for my 17-year-old son to have a different girlfriend every few months?
A. Sure it's normal, but that doesn't mean you should ignore it. The world needs more boys who believe that real men are never careless about others' feelings and dignity. Obviously parents are the ones most likely to make that happen. So be involved to the extent that both you and his father are beyond clear that you expect him to be respectful (in person, online, or while texting) toward anyone he dates. He must also insist on being treated the same way. Most important is for him to see how his parents interact. If you aren't showing him how people should respect each other in intimate relationships, it's hard to ask the same of him.
Q. My 16-year-old daughter spends a lot of time at her boyfriend's house. I just found out that his parents allow them to watch movies in his room with the door closed. Should I confront his parents?
A. Yes! Just confirm the "facts" with them first. While it's important to have a mutually respectful relationship with them, it's more important to set clear guidelines for your daughter and her boyfriend, such as, "The bedroom door must always be open." And don't hesitate to tell the other parents your rules! Now you may be thinking, "No way I'm telling them what to allow under their roof." But you have to communicate your rules to other parents so you can present a united front. If they disagree with you, have a mature face-to-face conversation about it—before your kids have been caught doing something they shouldn't. This is also the time to have another dialogue with your daughter about sex. A good resource: Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask), by Justin Richardson, M.D., and Mark Schuster, M.D., Ph.D. (Three Rivers Press).
Q. My 17-year-old wants to buy his new girlfriend an expensive necklace, which seems extravagant to me. Should I say something?
A. At 17 a boy is old enough to purchase pricey gifts for his girlfriend (with his own money) but not mature enough to realize he'll feel like a fool if she breaks his heart afterward. Your job? Notice whether the gift is a one-time thing or part of a pattern of buying love. If it's the latter, ask him how the relationship's going, then bring up your concerns.
Q. My 18-year-old son, a high school senior, is dating a 15-year-old sophomore. This doesn't seem like a great idea to me, but I don't want to forbid it. Are there any ground rules I should set?
A. There are two reasons boys date younger girls. Some boys aren't as mature as their female peers and feel more comfortable with someone younger. Other guys want to exploit the fact that younger girls have a harder time holding their own. Your job is to make your son aware that his girlfriend may have trouble communicating her personal boundaries. Teach him to ask her questions and to listen to her responses, both verbal and nonverbal (because a girl may say something is "okay," while her tone indicates the opposite). If you're concerned that your son fits the second scenario, be very clear with him that he will have to answer to you if he takes advantage of this girl. And also remind him that in some states he could be legally prosecuted for sexual activity with her. (For specifics, go to sexlaws.org.)
Q. My 16-year-old son has a girlfriend, but he has been spending a lot of time with another girl whom he calls his "best friend." Do you think I should get involved?
A. Sure. Start off with, "Maybe I'm seeing things the wrong way but I've noticed that you're hanging out with Mary. I love that you have strong friendships with girls but how does Anne feel about that?" He responds with, "Mom, it's no big deal. Don't worry about it." You say, "Well, it's normal to have strong feelings about two people at the same time, so if you want to discuss that, we can. The only thing that worries me is that you may be hurting somebody's feelings. This isn't about what I think of either of the girls. It's about how I expect you to conduct yourself in any relationship."
Q. My 16-year-old daughter wants to spend Christmas at her boyfriend's house. We'd like her at home but not if she's going to be a grumpy teenager.
A. She should be home with you—moody or not. That's what the holidays are for, right? Ungrateful, sullen teens moping about wishing they were somewhere else. Just keep her busy with a holiday project she's in charge of, like baking a pie or hanging out with an elderly or younger relative.
If you have a question of your own, e-mail askrosalind@FamilyCircle.com, and your answer may appear in the magazine.