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Ask the Expert: How Involved Should I Be in My Teen’s Relationships?

Dear Your Teen:

I went to pick up my son from school and he was with his girlfriend. I casually asked if she was coming too. I noticed a slight shift from my son and wondered whether he wished I hadn’t invited her. But she came with us. Once we arrived home, there seemed to be some tension. His girlfriend was crying. I suggested that maybe I should take her home. Every step of that experience had me wondering what my role is in my son’s relationship. When and how do I intervene?

EXPERT | Tori Cordiano, PhD

Teen dating, though a healthy and normal part of adolescent development, can be an emotionally fraught topic for teens and parents alike. Most teenagers are reluctant to share much about their relationship with their parents, and parents often feel unsure of whether to probe and how much space to offer.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how involved parents should be in their teens’ dating lives. Though it usually makes sense to give older teens more latitude than younger adolescents in their romantic relationships, this still varies tremendously based on your child’s maturity, experience, and general behavior.

Let’s assume for the sake of this situation that you generally trust your son and feel okay about his relationship with his girlfriend. Let’s also assume that however awkward that situation felt for you, it felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, for your son and his girlfriend. That can serve as an easy opening to a casual conversation with your son about his (and your) expectations of your involvement in his dating life.

You might say something like, “Hey, that ride home felt a little tense the other day. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to invite your girlfriend to come with us or not. How would you like me to handle that kind of situation next time?”

This question allows your son to take the lead and voice his preference for how you navigate similar situations in the future. It also leaves the door open for your son if he wishes to talk about what was going on with his girlfriend. Even if he chooses not to (a very likely possibility), you’re conveying that you are open to that type of conversation.

In letting your teenager know that you’re up for talking about his relationship, he’ll be more likely to approach you or to share information than if he thinks that it’s just too thorny a topic to broach with parents. In the example above, you might end the conversation by telling your son directly, “You know, I’m always glad to be a sounding board if something’s going on with your girlfriend, and I’m always glad to listen if you just need to vent about anything.” Of course, if parents notice a marked change in their teenager’s mood or behavior, or have reason to be concerned about their relationship, more involvement is appropriate. Just like any other aspect of adolescent development, it helps to be flexible and to adjust your involvement based on how your teen is faring in handling the responsibility.

When does teen dating get serious? Read about it here:

Although these conversations aren’t the easiest ones to have, getting reasonably comfortable talking with your son about dating lets him know that your aim is to support him while at the same time looking out for his safety and well-being. Ideally, you will be able to return to these conversations over time as this, and any future relationship, unfolds.

Dr. Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.

Dr. Tori Cordiano is a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Research Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.