Ask an expert about teen dating

Jayne McCartney sitting down and drinking coffee

This article was written by Jayne McCartney, a sexologist, educator, public health professional and journalist.

When my son experienced his first broken heart at the age of eight, I felt woefully ill-prepared. As a parent, I expected my children to fall in love and explore romantic relationships, but I hadn’t expected heartbreak to happen so soon.

My son and daughter are now in their early twenties and together we’ve navigated the roller coaster of their various relationships. Sometimes I feel like I’ve nailed the balance between keeping them safe and allowing their independence. Other times, I feel like I’ve blundered around doing and saying all the wrong things and generally being the most useless parent on earth, completely deserving of their withering eye rolls.

These days, I’m a qualified sexologist and work as a sex educator with a focus on the primary prevention of sexual harm. Research overwhelmingly points to age-appropriate, comprehensive relationships and sex education (CRSE) as one of the most robust ways we can prevent sexual harm and create the foundations for safe, healthy, fulfilling and joyful interpersonal connections – and parents play a critical role in this education.

According to research, teenagers say their parents are a preferred source of information about sex and relationships. Being an ‘askable parent’ is a meaningful way to be there for your kids when they have questions about these topics.

'You’re more knowledgeable than you realise, wiser than you know and more ready for this than you think.'

As a parent, you also have a unique insight into the cultural heritage that is important to your family, and you may wish to seek out relevant resources to support these conversations. Take Blaktion is a website with culturally appropriate content to promote sexual health and educate First Nations young people about healthy relationships. There are also a wide range of services to support people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to access culturally safe and appropriate information related to sexual health and relationships.

It might feel a little awkward to chat to your kids about relationships and sex, and you might worry about getting it wrong. But I can guarantee you don’t have to be a sexologist to be part of your teenager’s relationships and sex education. Lean into the awkwardness and you’ll find it soon becomes less uncomfortable. You’re more knowledgeable than you realise, wiser than you know and more ready for this than you think. Plus, you know your own teenagers better than anyone.

Young woman talking with parents

My teen gets frustrated when I get involved in their relationship. How do I find the balance between having a say and giving them space?

Make a time to sit down together to calmly discuss your involvement in their life. Before the talk, prepare a list of topics to chat about, such as: meeting new friends and partners; curfews; safer sex; and risky behaviour. Have some of their favourite snacks on hand and pick a place where they feel comfortable.

While chatting, try not to use directive or shaming language like, ‘You should…’ or ‘You never…’, and instead use affective or ‘I’ statements. Some examples include: ‘I love you and would like to know that the people you’re spending time with care for you too’, and ‘I worry about you when you have a lot of late nights. I would love to work on some expectations around this with you.’

Thank them afterwards for working with you and use positive reinforcement when your teen engages with you. ‘Hey, I really loved chatting just now. I know this isn’t always easy to talk about, but I appreciate you letting me stay connected to you.’

My teen is obsessed with their partner, to the point where they’ve been losing focus on their friends, homework and other hobbies. What should I do?

Romantic attraction, particularly when you’re a young person, can feel intense. It’s called ‘falling’ in love for a reason. While some aspects of modern dating have changed, the need for connection hasn’t. Ask your teen to sit down and work together with you on setting boundaries that everyone agrees on.

When chatting, be explicit about what you’re feeling (concerned/worried/curious) but have compassion for their experience: ‘Getting close to someone can be super exciting. I know what it’s like to want to spend all your time with someone. But I also know from experience that it’s important to keep up your other relationships and hobbies. How can we work on that together?’

How do I delicately explain to my teen that they’re in an unhealthy or ‘toxic’ relationship?

Sometimes the developmentally ‘normal’ experience of falling in love becomes unhealthy. This can be frightening for a parent, as your goal is to keep your teenager safe. Some of the warning signs of unhealthy relationships include jealousy, controlling behaviour, belittling, threats and withdrawal. Your teen may also experience ‘love bombing’, which has recently been identified as a precursor to abuse.

If you notice behaviour that feels coercive or controlling, find ways to discuss it without blaming or shaming. It’s okay to uphold agreed upon boundaries such as screen limits and curfews, but restricting your teenager from seeing the person they are dating rarely works and can force them into an ‘us against the world’ alliance. Let them know you’re curious about the concerning behaviour, but try not to be judgemental. For example, ask: ‘How does it feel when they call you at midnight?’

Here are some more ways to support your teen if they’re in a toxic relationship:

  • Continue to uplift your teenager with loving comments about their positive behaviours and traits, even when it seems like they don’t care. They do.

  • Point your teen in the direction of support resources such as those on ReachOut and other reputable websites like The Line.

  • Reach out to 1800RESPECT if you have any concerns about your teenager’s safety.

Father and daughter chatting

In my work I find that young people are pretty well versed in basic consent education. But knowledge doesn’t always translate into practice, so it’s important to keep having nuanced conversations about consent, compliance, pressure, coercion and force.

One way to get creative when discussing consent with your teenagers is to flip the script and ask them what they know about the topic. You could share that sex ed has changed a lot since you were young, and that you’re keen to hear what they know and have been learning, and about any questions they may have. Be prepared to learn about situationships, sneaky links, sexting – and so much more. Approach the conversation with a curious and non-judgemental mind and suggest that you seek out good sources of information together.

You could also suggest to them that you both do your own research and come back together with questions or things to share. I highly recommend these three excellent resources if you’re unsure about where to start looking: Consent Laid Bare by Chanel Contos, Legitimate Sexpectations by Katrina Marson and Welcome to Consent by Dr. Melissa Kang and Yumi Stynes.

It also helps to get comfortable with the eye-rolling. I’ve tried to put my ego aside when my kids roll their eyes at me. I’m okay with not being the coolest person in their world – as long as I’m someone they can trust and respect.

Do all teen relationships include sex?

The most recent National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health showed that more young people (49 per cent of Year 12 students) are sexually active now than in previous years. But it also shows that many young people aren’t having sex until after they have completed senior schooling. About 1 per cent of the population will identify as asexual, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction.

Some things to keep in mind about teenagers and sex:

  • Humans have varying levels of sexual desire and curiosity irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation.

  • Stereotypes about male sexuality, such as ‘guys are always up for it’, are harmful to people of all genders and are shown to contribute to rates of sexual harm. Do your best to challenge and call out these stereotypes.

  • It can be hard to think of your child as a sexual being, and that’s okay. You can allow them to have a private, healthy and fulfilling intimate life while still providing them with guidance and support. A good place to start is preparing for how you will respond when your teenager becomes sexually active.

  • Teens who are thinking about sex will likely be seeking out resources and information, so it can help to have some reputable resources about sex, sexuality and romantic relationships on hand to share with them.

My teen dumped their partner because they had 'the ick', and I'm worried they were a bit careless with their partner's emotions. How do I bring this up without making them feel shamed or judged?

Modern dating experiences such as ghosting, micro-cheating, orbiting and breadcrumbing can seem like experiences from another planet. Try not to let the differences be your focus. Instead, return to the foundations for ethical behaviour that you’re trying to instil in your teenager.

Here are some ways to start:

  • Encourage your teenager to see others as human beings – not as numbers.

  • Question your teenager gently (without shaming them) about behaviour that doesn’t align with the values you’re hoping to instil in them.

  • Help your teenager to understand empathy and ethics by unpacking these concepts together as a family and discussing real-world examples.

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