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Teenage relationships: romance & intimacy

9-15 years

Early teenage relationships often involve exploring physical intimacy and sexual feelings. You might not feel ready for this, but you have an important role in guiding and supporting your child through this important developmental stage.

About teenage relationships

Romantic relationships are a major developmental milestone. They come with all the other changes going on during adolescence – physical, social and emotional. And they’re linked to your child’s growing interest in body image and looks, independence and privacy.

Romantic relationships can bring lots of emotional ups and downs for your child – and sometimes for the whole family. The idea that your child might have these kinds of feelings can sometimes be a bit confronting for you. But these feelings are leading your child towards a deeper capacity to care, share and develop intimate relationships.

When teenage relationships start

There isn’t a ‘right age’ to start having relationships – every child is different, and every family will feel differently about this issue. But here are some averages:
  • From 9-11 years, your child might start to show more independence from the family and more interest in friends.
  • From 10-14 years, your child might want to spend more time in mixed gender groups, which might eventually end up in a romantic relationship. 
  • From 15-19 years, romantic relationships can become central to social life. Friendships might become deeper and more stable.

Many teenagers spend a lot of time thinking and talking about being in a relationship. In these years, teenage relationships might last only a few weeks or months. It’s also normal for children to have no interest in romantic relationships until their late teens. Some choose to focus on schoolwork, sport or other interests.

First crushes

Before your child starts having relationships, he might have one or more crushes.

An identity crush is when your child finds someone she admires and wants to be like.

A romantic crush is the beginning of romantic feelings. It’s about your child imagining another person as perfect or ideal. This can tell you a lot about the things that your child finds attractive in people.

Romantic crushes tend not to last very long because ideas of perfection often break down when your child gets to know the other person better. But your child’s intense feelings are real, so it’s best to take crushes seriously and not make fun of them.

Early teenage relationships

Younger teenagers usually hang out together in groups. They might meet up with someone special among friends, and then gradually spend more time with that person alone.

If your child wants to go out alone with someone special, talking about it with him can help you get a sense of whether he’s ready. Does he want a boyfriend or girlfriend just because his friends do? Does he think it’s the only way to go out and have fun? Or does he want to spend time getting to know someone better?

If the person your child is interested in is older or younger, it could be worth mentioning that people of different ages might want different things from relationships.

The most influential role models for teenagers are the grown-ups in their lives. You can be a positive role model for respectful relationships and friendships by treating your partner, friends and family with care and respect. Just talking about both men and women respectfully lets your child know you think everyone is equal and valuable.

Talking about teenage relationships with your child

Your family plays a big part in the way your child thinks about teenage relationships.

When you encourage conversations about feelings, friendships and family relationships, it can help your child feel confident to talk about teenage relationships in general. If your child knows what respectful relationships look like in general, she can relate this directly to romantic relationships.

These conversations might mean that your child will feel more comfortable sharing his feelings with you as he starts to get romantically interested in others. And the conversations can also bring up other important topics, such as treating other people kindly, breaking up kindly and respecting other people’s boundaries.

Having conversations with your child about sex and relationships from a young age might mean your child feels more comfortable to ask you questions as she moves into adolescence. 

In some ways, talking about romantic and/or sexual teenage relationships is like talking about friendships or going to a party. Depending on your values and family rules, you and your child might need to discuss behaviour and ground rules, plus consequences for breaking the rules. For example, you might talk about the amount of time your child spends with his girlfriend versus the amount of time he spends studying, or whether it’s OK for his girlfriend to stay over.

You might also want to agree on some strategies for what your child should do if she feels unsafe or threatened.

Young people might also talk to their friends, which is healthy and normal. They still need your back-up, though, so keeping the lines of communication open is important.

These can be tricky conversations (especially if you feel your child isn’t ready for a relationship). Check out our Talking to Teens Interactive Guide to see how different approaches to tricky topics can get different results. You can also find more information in our articles on tricky conversations and problem-solving with teenagers

Sex and teenage relationships

If your child is in a relationship, it can bring up questions about sex and intimacy.

Not all teenage relationships include sex, but most teenagers will experiment with sexual behaviour at some stage. This is why your child needs clear information on contraception, safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).

This could also be your chance to talk together about dealing with unwanted sexual and peer pressure. If you keep the lines of communication open and let your child know that you’re there to listen, he’ll be more likely to come to you with questions and concerns.

Talking with your child about sex and relationships won’t encourage her  to start having sex before she’s 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 she does start. You might like to read more in our article on sexuality and wellbeing in adolescence.

Same-sex attraction and early sexual experimentation

For some young people, sexual development during adolescence will include same-sex attraction and experiences.

For 3-10% of young people, the start of puberty will mean realising they have same-sex attraction. A larger number of young people might develop bisexual attraction.

If your child feels confused about his feelings or attraction to someone else, responding positively and non-judgmentally is a good first step. A big part of this is being clear about your own feelings about same-sex attraction. If you think you might have trouble being calm and positive, there might be another adult who both you and your child trust and who your child could talk with about his feelings.

Sexuality develops and often changes over time. What happens in adolescence isn’t set in stone for the rest of your child’s life. She doesn’t have to label herself as ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or anything else. Exploration and experimentation with sexuality is normal and common – the most important thing is to be safe.

Dealing with break-ups in teenage relationships

Break-ups and broken hearts are part of teenage relationships. To make things worse, teenage break-ups might be played out in public – maybe at school, or online on social networking websites.

You might expect your child to be sad and emotional if his relationship ends. It might not seem this way at the time, but this is part of learning how to cope with difficult decisions and disappointments. Your child might need time and space, a shoulder to cry on, and a willing ear to listen. He might also need some distraction.

Active listening can help you pick up on your child’s needs. But if your child seems sad or even depressed for more than a few weeks after a break-up, it might be worth getting some advice from a health professional, such as your GP.

Extra help with teenage relationships

Many people and services can help you with support and information – in person, online or on the phone. You could try:

Teenage relationships for children with special needs

A child with special needs has the same interest in – and need for information about – sex and relationships as other teenagers. Rates of sexual activity for young people with disability are the same as those for teenagers without disability.

Make sure your child has developmentally appropriate sex education at home and at school. Your health professional, local community resources and relevant support groups should be able to give you help or advice.

Video

Friends and socialising: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

6:27

This video features mums and dads of teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) talking about their children’s friendships and relationships with the opposite sex. Towards the end of the video, parents talk about their children’s understanding of relationships, sex and sexuality.

As one dad says, ‘The mechanics are sorted out. The issue he’ll have is understanding the complicated interactions between two people and the messages about what people are thinking and feeling’.

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Last updated or reviewed
27-11-2014

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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