Navigating and supporting the world of teen relationships

By Justine Marengo, Wood’s Homes Clinician.


During a time when COVID (and all things related to COVID) seems to dominate our news feeds, it sometimes feels like a challenge to also have to deal with the uncertainties and often tumultuous world of raising adolescents. The increasing concern about adolescents’ mental health due to COVID’s increased social isolation and restrictions may make it feel that starting conversations around relationships and sexual health are not high on your agenda right now; however, we know that COVID is here to stay for a while longer and addressing the important developmental changes that occur during adolescence creates a healthy foundation for assisting our young people in navigating this new stage of their development. 

As parents and caregivers, we often say things to ourselves like: 

  • “Why can’t I seem to connect with my teenager?” 
  • “Why can’t they see that this person is no good for them?” 
  • “They are too young to be in such a serious relationship!” 
  • “They spend all day on their phone texting their boyfriend and I feel like he/she is shutting me out.” 


Often as adults, we have forgotten what these all-encompassing feelings of adolescent romance feel like. Social, emotional and physical development stages mean that adolescents are navigating significant hormonal changes and shifts in social connections. Starting conversations with our young adults becomes increasingly important in order to appropriately guide them on their path to adulthood. Romantic relationships are a way for teenagers to express their growing interest in their physical appearance, social connection and growing independence. Teens have a need to connect and belong socially and building these relationships gives them the opportunity to practice these important social skills. 

Children naturally develop more and more independence as they grow. From around the age of 9-11, kids start to show more independence from their family. At 10-14, they typically start to spend more time with their friends and have a greater need to connect socially than spend time with their family. Age 15-19, romantic relationships often become central to their social life. These stages are important to know in order to ease our own sense of feeling ‘rejected’ by our own kids.  

Connecting with our teens is not impossible – it just takes a different type of conversation. Adolescents are able to continue building trust in adults that are willing to hear them out and listen fully without interruption, regardless of whether their opinion is different from the adults. Conversations around knowing the signs of healthy and unhealthy friendships builds a foundation for then discussing romantic relationships. Asking questions about how they feel in the relationship may open up this discussion. As a parent, you may feel the need to show them ‘the right way’ of embarking on these relationships, but it’s important that you take the time to hear them out and really LISTEN. You may be surprised by your child’s ability to navigate this new stage in their life. Asking, rather than telling, is the key to keeping the conversation going. Asking questions about what they understand about healthy and positive relationships will allow you to more accurately gauge where possible gaps may be, and you could give further guidance on such as sexual relationships, consent, conflict resolution, etc. 

Starting these initial conversations with your teenager will sometimes allow them to feel that their voice is being heard. If they do have concerns about negative aspects related to their romantic connections, then they will be more likely to discuss these concerns with you. There are some ways that, as a parent, you can support your teen’s healthy development of independent relationships. These would include things like knowing their social circle, discussing and negotiating appropriate boundaries, encouraging conversations about feelings, friendships and family relations. Having the courage to discuss difficult topics shows your teen that that you are able to talk about things that make you uncomfortable too. It’s important to have open discussions about what their ground rules are for romantic relationships, what they would do if they felt pressured into sexual activity they were not ready for, and what they can do if they feel threatened or unsafe. 

Some important things to remember when talking to your teenager – stay calm, listen without judgement and remember to thank your teenager for having these conversations with you. These all go a long way in supporting their independence, building their trust in you, and guiding them on their pathway to happy and healthy relationships in the future. 

Talking with your child about sex, sexuality and relationships won’t encourage them to start having sex before they are ready. In fact, the opposite is true. Comfortable, open discussions about sex can actually delay the start of sexual activity and lead to your child having safer sexual activity when they do start