"He totally sub-tweeted my tweet on Twitter. How passive-aggressive is that? I'm definitely going to block him and change my relationship status just to make him jealous."
Ten years ago, that sentence would have made absolutely no sense. With the rise of social media, not only has our daily vocabulary changed, but a lot has changed in how we act and interact with the world around us. From a parent's perspective, the world of teenage love and romance has evolved from being complicated to seemingly impossible to manage and monitor with all these new social connections.
With so much change in such a short period of time, a huge gap has developed between how relationships were handled in the past to how they are approached today. Many parents feel overwhelmed and uninformed, unsure of how to really reach their teenagers, much less help them manage the world of love, sex, and relationships. As a professional counselor, I have worked with a number of parents and their teens, and have found that having an impact in your teenager's life comes down to five important things:
1. Model healthy relationships.
Interestingly enough, the most effective way to influence your teenager when it comes to shaping his perspective on love and dating has very little to do with your interactions with him. So much of what we gather and incorporate into our lives about relationships are the things modeled to us during our childhood and teenage years. Teenagers who witness healthy relationships tend to seek out healthy relationships in their own lives. Girls who see their fathers loving and serving their mothers will look for those qualities in the boys they choose to date. Boys who experience the affection and respect from their mom to their dad will be drawn to girls with those same characteristics. Teaching communication, affection, love, trust, and appreciation begin with your relationship with your spouse.
For parents who have had the unfortunate loss of a marriage by way of death or divorce, don't give up on this important step. Modeling healthy relationships isn't limited to a spouse, but it can be applied to every important relationship, including siblings, parents, friends, and coworkers. Every relationship interaction is a chance to model health and wholeness. Your teenager is watching how you operate, and your actions will always speak louder than your words. Take these teachable moments seriously and be the best example of how God intended relationships to be.
2. Deepen your relationship with your teenager.
When it comes to guiding your teen through the world of dating, most parents picture awkward conversations and a list of rules. But one of my favorite sayings is a great reminder that "rules without relationship equal rebellion." Deepening your relationship with your child is the best way to get to her heart and fill it with good things! Invest in quality time with her, fill her with words of praise and affirmation, and give her lots of love and affection. Ask her questions, get her opinions, and make her feel as important as you believe she is. It is only when you have strengthened your relationship with your teenager that enforcing the rules will be meaningful, because "rules plus relationship equal respect and responsibility."
3. Engage your teenager emotionally.
It's important to remember there are three levels of communication when it comes to building relationship with your teen. Level one consists of conversation based on facts: Who are you dating? What are you involved in at school? It's a basic form of communication and doesn't require much personal expenditure.
Level two conversations, on the other hand, require a little more work. These are based on opinions and ideas, and require a deepened level of trust: What do you think of that young man in your youth group? What are your thoughts on friends with benefits? It costs a little more because it requires you to give a little more of who you are as you exchange perspectives, ideas, and opinions that belong to you.
But the most meaningful communication is level three, which digs into the heart, sharing feelings and emotions. It's uncomfortable for some parents and teens to go this deep, but it's crucial for both building and modeling healthy relationships: What are some struggles I can be praying about? What was the happiest and saddest moment of your day today? How do you feel when you're with your significant other?
Take the time to communicate effectively by guiding your teen and engaging with them in level one, two, and three conversations in order to get to the bottom of who they are so you can get to the bottom of what your teen is going through.
4. Set Appropriate Boundaries and Limits.
Once the foundation of relationship has been laid, it's important to assess the limits and rules you have in place with your teen regarding social media. I challenge every parent to put together a list of "reds" (things that are off limits), "yellows" (things that may be earned as trust is earned), and "greens" (things that are generally allowed) when it comes to the world of the Internet and social media.
Once you've addressed appropriate limits for what can and can't be navigated via social media, it's wise to take a look at time limits and restraints. How many hours a day is your teen engaging in activities related to social media? Do you see her engaging in real-life relationships, or has the relational world been consumed by the digital? You should always be challenging your teenager to connect face-to-face with friends as much as possible. No matter how we try to replicate it, there is nothing more meaningful than the power of real-life connections.
Another piece to the puzzle of boundaries and limits is to remind your teen how online interactions impact real life interactions. Though there are so many positives when it comes to social media, it can also have some really negative impacts on our lives. Stepping into this virtual world, we find that we feel empowered and in control. Slowly, we let our walls down. With an easy click of a button, we can lose our inhibition, sharing every thought and feeling in a context that isn't always a safe place.
Sometimes, this lack of inhibition motivates us to say and do things in the online world that we would never say or do in real life. In the end, our online actions can have real-life consequences by tarnishing our reputation, ruining our friendships, or isolating us from people we could have otherwise connected with. It's important to help your teen recognize the impact that social media can have on real-life relationships and encourage him to interact with grace, wisdom, kindness, and humility whether online or off.
5. Stay In the Know.
Finally, if you're the parent of a teen, keep him or her close. Be in the know about where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Don't allow the gap of technology to keep you away, but rather be a part of the things that they are engaging in. Start a Facebook page, send out some tweets, or log on to Instagram to keep up with your teen. Text your teen words of encouragement or send an email just to say you love her.
Be open and willing to ask the questions and hear the answers whether or not you always agree. If you want to speak into your child's life, you have to fist provide a listening ear that will draw him close to you.
Navigating through the world of relationships can be a difficult journey. Add to that the modern technological advances of social media and there's no denying that it's a challenge. Guiding your teenager into healthy relationships will be rooted in your relationship with them, effective communication, and a commitment to appropriate boundaries and limits. Don't be intimidated in this new age of social media. Instead remember that the principles of creating healthy relationships remain the same whether your teenager is online or off.
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Debra K. Fileta is a professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She, her husband, and two children live in Hershey, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the new book True Love Dates (Zondervan, October 2013), challenging young men and women to do dating in a way that is psychologically sound, emotionally healthy, and spiritually grounded. Visit www.truelovedates.com and follow her on Twitter to get your dating questions answered and to learn more.