How to handle your child’s first relationship

Reader asks: Help! What do you do when you don’t like the behavior of your son’s first `real’ girlfriend? She blatantly ignores time limits set by both sets of parents and behaves rudely to hers. Then, the relationship continues for much longer than you imagined it would … not just two weeks or two months, but a LONG time-almost a year!

I’m sure it’s difficult to wrap your head around your son’s first foray into couple-hood, let alone manage the challenging behavior you describe, but my advice is the same no matter the nature of kids’ connections or even their ages.

Whether your son is 4 or 14, try to see this situation as an opportunity to encourage him to discern what matters to him in relationships. Ask him how he thinks things are going. How does he feel about how she treats her parents? Is he concerned that she might treat him in similar ways eventually? Why or why not? Be careful not to grill him, and bear in mind that this conversation might go over best in installments-as you’re walking the dog together, for example, or riding somewhere in the car.

Tread lightly at first and look for signals from your son about his readiness to talk.

But sometimes the talk can’t wait, signal or no signal. Sometimes limits need to be set (that they meet up in groups vs. 1:1, for example) and consequences meted out. Whatever consequence you choose, though, be prepared to follow through.

This is difficult for most of us. Sometimes we conjure impossible consequences when we’re frustrated, like, “Do that again and you’ll go to your room for the rest of your life!” When we come to our senses and cave, our children get the idea that they simply can keep on with whatever behavior inspired concern in the first place. Moral of the story? Consider consequences carefully and pick only those you can live with. Making them natural and logical helps to reinforce the lesson you want your child to learn. For example, want your son home by 9, but he shows up at 9:15? Let him know that you’re glad he’s enjoying his friendships but that he’ll be docked for every minute he’s late. The next time he wants to spend time with friends, he must be home by 8:45.

Unless you suspect that your child’s safety is in question, resist the urge to try and squash this relationship (or any friendship), as this may only result in your child digging in his heels and developing a defiant posture, perhaps even maintaining the appearance of a connection with this friend even after it has already cooled and is headed toward its natural conclusion.

But not all of them end. Some early relationships are simply learning experiences, but don’t forget about those couples married 50 years who met in middle school. It happens, so remember that the seeds you sow in your relationship with your son’s girlfriend could bear fruit for years to come. But if their connection isn’t forever, those seeds still will bear fruit in your rapport with your son.

Disconcerting as this may be, try and relish the opportunity you have here: you get to help your son sort through all of these issues.

Surviving adolescence, that bridge from child to adulthood, can be challenging for both children and parents. We’re the experts and `in charge’ where our kids are concerned. But eventually, after a little necessary trial-and-error, they’ll become the authority in all things `them’-and we need to get out of their way and let them.

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