By Melinda Sacks
It was a conversation I overheard from the kitchen that started me worrying about my 16-year-old son. Clearly he was talking to a girl.
Him (in a hushed voice): "So what happened?"
Him again: "How did you feel about it? Did you break up with him?"
Him one more time: "What about us?"
I stopped washing the lettuce and started to listen more carefully as the dialogue veered off to a discussion about becoming boyfriend and girlfriend.
Sure, my husband and I have had conversations with our son about where babies come from (at age 7), what happens in puberty (at age 12) and the importance of safe sex, how to say no, and respecting boundaries (age 13). I'd bought the books on changing bodies, the videos on talking about sex, and sent my husband into our son's room for further conversation many times.
But now I had to ask: Had we ever really talked about relationships — how teenage girls and boys form romantic bonds, or the intricacies of interactions with the opposite sex?
It was easy when our daughter, now in college, was a maturing teenager. An avid reader who was not embarrassed about asking questions, she would march into the kitchen, her copy of Everything You Wanted to Know About Your Body for Girls tucked under her arm, and asked me explicit questions. I answered honestly and with as much detail as she wanted. We talked openly about periods, puberty, boys, and sex.
But our son, on the other hand, has learning disabilities (LD) and is a weak reader. He's not prone to introspection, and is much more modest. For those reasons, he wouldn't go near the books I bought for him. He did not want to discuss sex, and he almost slammed the door in my face when I tried to talk to him recently about the telephone conversation I'd overheard.
While sex education can be tricky for any parent, it gets even trickier when the youngster involved is impulsive or has learning or attention problems that make reading social cues and learning by observation seriously challenging. Our son, for all his wonderful qualities, is often out of the loop when it comes to understanding the nuances of relationships. Throw in raging hormones and media messages that bombard teens with sex, and things become even more confusing and complicated.
I couldn't help but wonder: Would my son understand how to talk to his female friends in an appropriate way? Would he comprehend the boundaries and the social cues well enough to say and do the right thing? How could my husband and I guide him through these murky waters?
"There is a balance of skills you need to navigate relationships successfully in the teen years," says psychiatrist Damon Korb, whose private practice in Los Gatos, California, focuses on families whose children have learning and social difficulties.
"Relationships are all about reading social cues and understanding another person's perspective. If you don't automatically do those things, it can cause trouble initiating and sustaining relationships."
The necessary skills for creating and keeping relationships come naturally for most of us, yet they are numerous. From developing the ability to read someone else's body language to understanding how far away to stand from someone during conversation, when to talk and when to listen, and even how much of one's personal feelings it is safe and appropriate to reveal at any given time, the nuances of interacting with other people can be overwhelming. For kids like our son, these social skills are not as developed as for many of his peers. And teens are not exactly tolerant when someone acts in a way they deem unacceptable.
For these reasons, Dr. Korb points out, it is important for parents to do what they can to help their children learn how to have successful relationships. He offers some helpful suggestions, which can be initiated well before the teen years, but can continue to help during adolescence:
When dealing with younger children, taking "field trips" to observe and learn about human behavior is another fun and instructive approach therapists recommend. Consider going to the mall for a "people-watching trip." Who makes good eye contact? What happens when a boy touches a girl's arm as they are talking, or when a girl puts her arm around a boy? Who is good at making other people laugh? How does he do it? Observe social space, Korb suggests, to help kids know how close to stand to others and how loudly to talk. As a guide to how much and what kind of instruction to give your child, consider his developmental age rather than actual years.
Dragging my teenage son to the mall to observe the social interactions of other teens is out of the question. He is, of course, too old for that approach. So we needed to find a way to talk to him in the privacy of our home and family.
As is true with any conversation about sensitive issues with teens, timing seems to be everything. For us, late at night is the best time to approach prickly topics — preferably in the dark (sitting on the edge of the bed often works). Conversations while riding in the car are also good, because there is none of that potentially uncomfortable face-to-face contact.
Psychologist Tom Plante, a professor at the University of Santa Clara and a family therapist in Menlo Park, California, offers simple directions to parents initiating a discussion about teen relationships.
"We have a number of different ways to peel this apple," he says, "but the ultimate success is a byproduct of the relationship between the parent and the adolescent. If the adolescent can't hear anything from the adult, or the adult doesn't know how to listen, they are not going to get anywhere."
First, figure out which parent communicates best with the child, he suggests. Most often (but not always) it is the parent of the same sex.
"Let your adolescent know right at the get-go where this conversation is going," says Plante. "Your daughter or son will feel embarrassed to talk about intimate sexual feelings, so if you start by saying, 'I want to be a good parent but I am not going to ask you embarrassing questions,' it's almost like getting informed consent upfront. Then your child will not have to worry that you are going to try to ask about things that are uncomfortable, but you are coming at this as someone who wants the best for him."
"It's not a conversation about condoms or, "Are you having sex,'" says Plante, "It's about respect, how do we interact with people we are romantically involved with. You don't even have to use the word "sex.'"
"It is helpful if parents come to this with a certain degree of humility," Plante reminds us. "If they can reflect on their own adolescent experience they may come to it with a little more empathy and humility, rather than the attitude, "I am the parent and I am going to tell you what to do.'"
Armed with this advice, I head to my son's room at 11 p.m., determined to try again to have a conversation about relationships with girls. It's only the beginning, I know, but this time we talk about the movie we saw earlier that day, What Women Want. It provides the perfect bridge.
"Wouldn't it be great to be able to read the minds of girls?" I say. "What do you think you'd hear?"
Then, in the protection of the darkened room, we talk about how girls might feel and what boys might do or say.
For one night, at least, mission accomplished.