It doesn't help that today, many teens are connecting online, finding friends and romantic interests with those they might not see in day-to-day life. It can be easy for them to get heavily invested in these types of relationships, sometimes to devastating consequences. Most recently the case of Michelle Carter has been causing worry among many parents of teens.
Carter is charged with encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III — who she met online — to commit suicide via numerous texts. A judge is now deciding whether to charge Carter with manslaughter.
How can parents ensure that their teens are in healthy, safe relationships, especially if it's one that takes place primarily online? SheKnows talked to two experts who weighed in on it for us.
"During the developmental stage of adolescence, children form relationships with peers to assist them with navigating through one of the most challenging periods of one's life. Teenagers are in the process of forming their identity and learning how to become comfortable in their own skin. Many research studies conducted have revealed that children who have positive peer friendships during adolescence are more secure with themselves," explains SheKnows Expert Daniella Florin Tuerack, a certified school psychologist and owner of Insightful Families.
While the added online component might make things a little bit trickier when it comes to relationships, parents shouldn't immediately panic. "Online relationships aren't inherently unhealthy," explains family physician and parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa. "Parents are understandably skeptical of a love that is mostly digital, although we're often skeptical — or downright scared — of all of our kids' romantic interests."
Dr. Gilboa says that these are actually great opportunities for exploration, discussion and guidance between parents and their teens. Both experts say that keeping your eyes open to the possibilities and various outcomes of teen relationships is smart.
According to Dr. Gilboa, there are a variety of warning signs to look out for. "A new level of obsession with being alone with a screen, being secretive about communications, defensive about a relationship without being willing to explain what the problem is" are just a few of them. She also notes that when a relationship becomes a teen's primary focus, "they should be willing to meet that person and share them with family." When a teen keeps a love interest entirely to themselves, there's the chance that they're hiding something or afraid of something. Don't be afraid to ask or intervene.
Dr. Gilboa offers these tips for when it comes to talking with teens about relationships:
Start young. Ask your elementary schooler what some friendship "deal breakers" are in their opinion. What might a friend do or say or ask of you that would make you stop being friends?
Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Ask, "Tell me something you really admire about this person"; "Help me get to know them"; "I want to like them as much as you do, what don't I know?"
Don't give advice in every conversation. Advice is very hard to take and harder when you didn't ask for it.
Feelings matter. Empathy and connection are the best tools you have to help your child make healthy decisions.
"If you feel your child's life is in danger, you must act to protect them, no matter what the short-term consequences are to trust between you," Gilboa notes.
When in doubt, don't be afraid to seek help.
"Parents need to take advantage of the professionals they have access to in order to intervene before it is too late," Florin Tuerack suggests.
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