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By Melinda Sacks
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.
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