Many parents react punitively to teen relationships like cutting off their kids’ access to phones, and restricting their movement. But this will likely do more harm than good.

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news Parenting Monday, September 02, 2019 - 15:50

When Sumith* was 15, his mother, Rithika* sat him down, and had “the talk” with him. She told him that he was likely to feel attracted towards girls, and that was normal. “It’s probably infatuation, and you will grow out of it,” she told him. They also talked about safe sex, respecting women, and that he was too young for physical intimacy.

She explained some aspects of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act to him as well, such as sexual relations between minors is statutory rape under the law.

Two years later, the family went through a difficult time when Sumith’s school teacher saw him hug a female classmate of his. The matter escalated to the point of expulsion, for the school thought it was indecent. However, Sumith had his parents on his side, and that ultimately made all the difference.

“Sumith had told us before that he was seeing the girl. When this issue happened at school, initially we were upset. But we realised that there was nothing abnormal with a hug and the school was just blowing it out of proportion,” Rithika says. Ultimately, with both Sumith and the girl’s parents’ support, the school had to relent, and the students were allowed to come back and write their exams.

Rithika says it helped that she spoke with Sumith pre-emptively, and that both teens’ parents knew about the relationship.

Not every story of teen relationships goes like Sumith’s. Even today, many parents react punitively – cutting off their kids’ access to phones, internet, friends, and restricting movement among other things. However, adolescent relationships are normal, and are the natural result of the physiological changes that they go through as teenagers.

Even if they’d like to do things differently, it can be a difficult subject to broach for parents. Here’s what the experts advise.

Having a respectful conversation

Upon finding out the adolescent is dating, parents should sit them down and have a respectful, value-based conversation, says Dr Sangeeta Saksena, Co-Founder at Bengaluru-based Enfold Proactive Health Trust.   

“Tell them that this is a safe space, and what is being said here won’t be used to taunt or bully each other later,” she says. Apart from reassuring them that the romantic feelings they have are normal, “and the sexual feelings can be very strong, they are not at an age where they can take the responsibility for the consequences such as pregnancies, in a responsible and mature manner,” Dr Sangeeta adds.

She also points out when educating them about safe sex, adolescents must also be told that contraception methods can also fail.

“Tell them how getting into a relationship could impact their studies at this time, and while what they are feeling may seem very strong, it may not always last. You want them to be frank with you, and not take drastic steps like running away or put themselves in an unsafe situation,” Dr Sangeeta says.

Aarti C Rajaratnam, a Salem-based consultant psychologist specialising in childhood and adolescent mental health, says that parents must understand that they need to connect and communicate rather than condemn and correct. “If you keep doing the latter, the child may become secretive at first. In the future though, he/she may become defiant.”

It is also a good idea to ask the child what they need from parents at this time. “Don’t talk down to children. A lot of times, they just want to talk and share, and if you start sermonising, they may feel unheard or alienated, and not confide in you the next time,” Aarti cautions.

If the child wants to continue dating, the next question arises – where should they meet?

In Sumith’s case, his girlfriend would often come home with some friends, and he would go to her place as well when parent(s) were home. “We were initially not very comfortable with the idea, but we realised that this way, it was a safe space for them to meet under supervision,” Rithika says.

If this isn’t possible, parents could suggest a public place like a mall, or to go in a group, and to be kept informed, Dr Sangeeta says. “The bottom line is, you cannot prevent them from meeting up, so call out the possibilities of what might happen if they meet secretly. Discuss openly and respectfully. Most adolescents who end up having sex haven’t planned it, it  happens at the spur of the moment.  Meeting at a place where sex isn’t possible could have avoided such a situation.”

An ongoing conversation

Ideally, the conversation on sexuality has to be an ongoing one, as it was in Sumith’s case.

“As parents and teachers, we need to accept the sexuality of the child. We are sexual beings right from the start, which is why you will see completely normal socio-sexual touching and play among small children also. During puberty, this sexual development is accelerated,” Dr Sangeetha says.

“It’s quite hypocritical that we obsess over love stories in popular culture but when teenagers express these feelings, we tell them it’s wrong and abnormal,” Aarti argues. “We don’t look at adolescent relationships as simply a result of the child’s normal physiological development. We start to equate that natural excitement they feel towards romance and sexuality with morals, religion and culture, which is unnatural,” she adds.

Adolescents can be supported in learning  how to express sexuality in ways that are safe, responsible, and respectful to themselves and the other person. “Yes, we can normalise the sexual feelings they have. It is also our responsibility to tell them about the physical, emotional, and even legal consequences instead of scaring them with moralistic arguments,” says Dr Sangeeta, adding, “From a child rights perspective, we are doing a great disservice to our adolescents by keeping this information from them.”

A good way to have these tricky conversations is to have a connection ritual, which has to be built over time. This is essentially an activity that the parent and child bond over, and it becomes a safe space for the child to share. “Ideally, parents shouldn’t even have to find out if their child has a crush. The child should be comfortable enough to tell them,” Aarti says.   

What happens when parents react punitively?

The short-term impact of parents reacting punitively to disclosure or learning about their teenager’s romantic relationship is that the child may withdraw, or even continue seeing the other person in secret. In some cases – even though the relationship may not last under normal circumstances – the restrictions may compel teenagers to elope.  

The long-term impacts include the child not seeking help from parents even if they are unhappy in a relationship, or are being manipulated or abused, due to the fear of getting into more trouble, agree Dr Sangeeta and Aarti.

It could also affect the children’s mental health in some cases, though the restriction on being in a relationship may be only one of the triggers. Things are worse for teens who experience same-gender attraction as it’s likely to be dealt with worse.

“Parents don’t have to endorse the relationship. But the most secure environment is created where there is respect and communication, which helps build transparency between the parents and children over time,” Aarti says. This would also ensure that the child explores and experiences their identity – of which sexuality and relationships are a part – in a secure environment, she adds. 

*Names changed