Mothers play a vital role in a child’s life. Whether it’s giving a ride to school, making a Halloween costume, or offering valuable advice, mothers seem to know and do it all. When children transition to their teenage years, they begin to take a more independent role and start making many of their own decisions. As teens go through puberty, they start to focus less on parental relationships and more on relationships outside of their families.8,14,18 One example of this change is a teenager’s increased interest in dating and romantic relationships.6,12,14,17
As teens reach dating age, mothers might feel less like they know it all and instead sometimes feel that they are in the dark in helping teens navigate social situations. Although teens may feel ready to start serious relationships, mothers tend to be acutely aware of their teen’s social abilities and capabilities for serious romantic relationships.2,7,14 While both fathers and mothers can be equally supportive of their teen’s development,14 mothers tend to be most involved in helping children develop socially and emotionally.
With this knowledge of their teen’s development, mothers may be concerned about their teens participating in serious romantic relationships. As it turns out, these concerns are not entirely unfounded.
Cause for Concern
Teen romance is normalized and often encouraged by media and peers. Teenagers in a romantic relationship may even be envied by their peers. Casual dating can be a great way for teens to build friendships as well as gain social and relationship skills.12,16 However, recent research has found that serious relationships are often difficult for teens to manage.2,6,12,16 Important social, emotional, and biological developments are still in process, putting teens in romantic relationships at greater risk for mental health problems than those who begin serious romantic relationships later. Mothers should be aware of and anticipate challenges teens can face in serious relationships.
Romantic relationships can be challenging for teens partly due to lack of experience.6,16 The intense emotions that go along with serious relationships such as jealousy or doubt can make relationships stressful. These emotions can be especially difficult for teens who have not yet learned a range of healthy coping skills.6,12,16
Another concern about serious teen relationships is conflict. Tension and conflict in personal relationships can contribute to teenage depression.1,2,8 While teenagers may have experienced conflict with friends, romantic conflict is usually unfamiliar to them. Teens may feel stress in relationships if they do not know how to resolve the conflict. Coping skills can help manage these difficulties, but romantic conflict can lead to mental health problems in teens.12
A further concern is the risk of breakups. Romantic relationships during teen years tend to be short-term.5 Losing a relationship and, by extension, a romantic partner, can be emotionally devastating. Difficult breakups put teens at risk for depressive episodes and even suicide.2,16
What Mothers Can Do
With these risks in mind, mothers may wonder how to connect with their teens and counsel them about dating. It may be helpful to encourage teens to wait to start serious relationships until after teen years and to take advantage of opportunities go on dates and spend time socializing with peers. This will give teens time to develop coping skills, relationship skills, and social skills that can result in fulfilling relationships.3,12,16 However, it is not enough to just tell teenagers not to date; mothers need to help teens trust the message.
There are several ways mothers can be a positive influence and encourage trust, specifically as teens start dating. The following are just a few examples that may help mothers positively influence their teen’s dating choices:
- Provide positive relationship experiences. The mother-child relationship can be a key example to teens for dating.14,17 Teens can learn about relationship features like communication, emotional support, and attachment through their relationship with their mother.17 Later on, teens tend to mirror these parent-child dynamics in relationships outside the family.17,18 Mothers can take advantage of this and show teens what to expect out of relationships by striving to be caring and supportive. When teens have a positive relationship with their parents, it may help them see and avoid aspects of dating relationships that are not healthy.
- Communicate with adolescents. As they near adulthood, teenagers start making more of their own decisions. They might start to question rules that parents set. Saying things like, “Because I said so,” to teens likely won’t be effective. Rather, mothers should explain the reasons behind their concerns about dating. Mothers tend to be most aware of their children’s relationship competence and emotional needs.2,14 They can use this knowledge to communicate with their adolescent children. Giving a thoughtful explanation to teenagers as to why romantic relationships can be hard to manage may show teens why it’s a good idea to wait.
Mothers may even find it helpful to share their own dating experiences with their teens. Doing so can help build trust and encourage teens to share more with parents. This two-way communication can help mothers have an active role in their teen’s life while still allowing teens to think for themselves.
- Support self-esteem. Self-esteem can be developed through high quality mother-child relationships and sincere support from mothers.5,9 Self-esteem helps teens to feel optimistic and confident in themselves. Mothers can support self-esteem by accepting their teens, allowing their teens autonomy, and being involved in their teen’s lives.3,18 Maternal support also helps teens feel emotionally secure and promotes independence.18 Some research has even found that as teens feel secure in relationships at home, they may not feel the need for the companionship of early romantic relationships.16
In summary, high quality mother-child relationships promote trust and confidence.15 When mothers actively try to build high quality and trusting relationships with their children, the teen may be more receptive to dating suggestions and the cautions mothers give.
When Teenagers Choose to Date Exclusively
Despite parental advice to the contrary, teens may still choose to date seriously. It is important for mothers now to recognize their teen’s need for autonomy, despite the risks of serious teen relationships. While mothers can provide appropriate autonomy in allowing their teens to make their own decisions, setting limits and remaining involved can be important in helping them navigate the challenges they may face.5 In this way, mothers can maintain a trusting relationship with their teen and encourage communication about the romantic relationship.17 Mothers can also be aware of problems the teen faces and make themselves available to help with stresses or to intervene when necessary. Although romantic relationships can put teens at greater risk for depression, if teens believe they have support at home, it can help negate depressive effects of romantic relationships 2,12,16 Depressive effects of adolescent romantic relationships are worsened by low parental support.2,12,16
Although serious teenage romantic relationships are not ideal, mothers can and should be supportive of their teens if they choose to be in relationships. If mothers reject or guilt their teenager in a relationship, teens may withdraw from their parent, thus restricting communication and the ability to be influenced into healthy paths while navigating the relationship. Mothers will have less positive influence if teens lose trust in this crucial relationship. Research demonstrates adolescents fare better during romantic relationships when mothers show warmth and support.13,17 Just as mothers want their teen to trust the mother-child relationship, mothers should trust that relationship as well. Instead of acting out of fear when a teen chooses to be in a romantic relationship, trust in the mother-child relationship with its positive influence.
Teens can greatly benefit from the influence of mothers who are more experienced in relationships. Mothers are armed with knowledge from their own dating experiences as well as awareness of their teen’s social and emotional development. Mothers can warn their teens about the risks of early serious relationships and be involved in guiding, discussing, and helping teens navigate this new dating experience. Whether or not teens choose to have a romantic relationship, teen dating can be a unique opportunity for both teens and mothers to build up a stronger relationship that can influence teens for the better.
Written by Megan Kay, and edited by Professors Julie Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. May 14, 2019.
- Abaied, J. L., & Rudolph, K. D. (2010). Mothers as a resource in times of stress: Interactive contributions of socialization of coping and stress to youth psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(2), 273-289.
- Anderson, S.F., Salk, R.H., & Hyde, J.S. (2015). Stress on romantic relationships and adolescent depressive symptoms: Influence of parental support. Journal of Family Psychology, 29(3), 339-348.
- Auslander, B. A., Short, M. B., Succop, P. A., & Rosenthal, S. L. (2009) Associations between parenting behaviors and adolescent romantic relationships. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(1), 98-101.
- Boer, O. E., & Tranent, P. J. (2013). Conceptualizing the relationship between maternal parenting style and adolescent self-esteem: A pragmatic approach. Journal of Relationships Research, 4.
- Brenning, K., Soenens, B., Van Petegem, S., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2015). Perceived maternal autonomy support and early adolescent emotion regulation: A longitudinal study. Social Development, 24(3), 561-578.
- Collibee, C., & Furman, W. (2015). Quality counts: Developmental shifts in associations between romantic relationship qualities and psychosocial adjustment. Child Development, 86(5), 1639-1652.
- Flynn, H. K., Felmlee, D. H., & Conger, R. D. (2017). The social context of adolescent friendships: Parents, peers, and romantic partners. Youth & Society 49(5), 679-705.
- Ha, T., Dishion, T. J, Overbeek, G., Burk, W. J., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The blues of adolescent romance: Observed affective interactions in adolescent romantic relationships associated with depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42(4), 551-562.
- Johnson, M. D., & Galambos, N. L. (2014). Paths to intimate relationship quality from parent-adolescent relations and mental health. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(1), 145-160.
- Jones, J. D., Brett, B. E., Ehrlich, K. B., Lejuez, C. W., & Cassidy, J. (2014). Maternal attachment style and responses to adolescents’ negative emotions: The mediating role of maternal emotion regulation. Parenting: Science and Practice, 14(3-4), 235-257.
- O’Sullivan, L. F., Hughes, K., Talbot, F., & Fuller, R. (2019). Plenty of fish in the ocean: How do traits reflecting resiliency moderate adjustment after experience a romantic breakup in emerging adulthood? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1-14.
- Rogers, A. A., Ha, T., Updegraff, K. A., & Iida, M. (2018). Adolescents’ daily romantic experiences and negative mood: A dyadic, intensive longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(7), 1517-1530.
- Sherman, A., Grusec, J. E., & Almas, A. N. (2017). Mothers’ knowledge of what reduces distress in their adolescents: Impact on the development of adolescent approach coping. Parenting: Science and Practice, 17(3), 187-199.
- Shulman, S., Scharf, M., Bohr, Y., Tuval-Mashiach, R., Hirsh, Y., & Faians, M. (2017). Adolescent romantic competence and parenting attitudes: Gender variations and correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34(4), 594-614.
- Stroud, C. B., & Fitts, J. (2017). Rumination in early adolescent girls: Interactive contributions of mother-adolescent relationship quality and maternal coping suggestions. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 46(6), 868-879.
- Szwedo, D. E., Chango, J. M., & Allen, J. P. (2015). Adolescent romance and depressive symptoms: The moderating effects of positive coping and perceived friendship competence. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 44(4), 538-550.
- Tuggle, F. J., Kerpelman, J. L., & Pittman, J. F. (2014). Parental support, psychological control, and early adolescents’ relationships with friends and dating partners. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 63(4), 496-512.
- Walper, S., & Wendt, E. V. (2015). Adolescents’ relationships with mother and father and their links to the quality of romantic relationships: A classification approach. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(5), 516-532.
In their God-given roles as nurturers,1 mothers want to help their children become their best selves. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “No love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.”2 As children become teenagers, this selfless love may be especially needed as mothers help their teens navigate the new waters of dating. This endeavor may be challenging, but mothers can be helpful as they bravely lead their children while still respecting their God-given agency.
President M. Russell Ballard taught, “Throughout the history of the world, women have always been teachers of moral values. That instruction begins in the cradle and continues throughout the lives of their children.”3 Dating gives teenagers the opportunity learn how to make choices that are in line with the teachings of the gospel. Teens might struggle at times with morality in their dating choices. In these times, the Spirit may urge mothers to teach, counsel, or correct their children. Mothers have a special spiritual charge to guide their children in the ways of righteousness, so they need not shy away from teaching their teens about righteous dating choices while still allowing them to make their own choices.
As teenagers learn to use their agency in dating and other aspects of their life—including forming non-romantic social relationships, developing their identity, and taking care of their physical health—they may occasionally stumble, but mothers can provide a loving environment for their children. Seeing children make mistakes can be difficult for mothers, but there is hope in the promise that “the Messiah cometh…that he may redeem men from the fall” (2 Nephi 2:26). If teenagers make mistakes in their dating experiences, mothers can model the love of the Savior toward their children and help connect their children to the Savior’s powerful atoning sacrifice. Even if mothers may not always be able to save their children from all the pitfalls of mortality (and dating), they can trust that the Savior can.
The scriptures can serve as a Liahona (Alma 37:44) for mothers who want to magnify their key role in their teen’s dating. In the Book of Mormon, mothers like Sariah (1 Nephi 5:1-9) and the mothers of the stripling warriors (Alma 56:47-48) showed deep care and concern for the well-being of their children. They helped their children to develop faith in God while trusting them to choose for themselves, even when they were faced with challenging circumstances. These scriptural mothers model the kind of faith that can help modern-day mothers find courage to help and love their dating teens.
Mothers can help their dating teenagers by staying interested in and aware of what is going on in their lives. One way to do this is found in the “Dating” portion of For the Strength of Youth, where church leaders give this counsel: “[Parents should] become acquainted with those [their teens] date.4 This practice can help mothers better understand their children, can open the door for greater spiritual guidance, and can even help mothers protect their children from those with bad intent. Still, not all answers to individual problems might be found in a church pamphlet or General Conference talk. Ultimately, there is no greater teacher than the Spirit to tutor mothers about their personal role to help their children.
President Russell M. Nelson has recently taught: “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”5 During different times of their teenager’s lives, mothers may wonder whether it is best to teach and counsel their teen or better to simply love them and respect their agency.6 The answer may be different at different times and in different situations. Above all, as President Nelson counseled, mothers should rely on the Spirit to guide them in knowing when to speak out and when to just listen and love. God will pour out His inspiration and help mothers magnify their stewardship and express their selfless love, allowing their teens to have positive growth experiences in the dating years.
Written by Laura Waters Black and Suzanne Waters, edited by professors Julie H. Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. February 13, 2020.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Family: A Proclamation to the World, paragraph 7.
- Holland, J. R. (2015, November). Behold thy mother. Ensign.
- Ballard, M. R. (2010, May). Mothers and daughters. Ensign.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the Strength of Youth, “Dating.”
- Nelson, R. M. (2018, May). Revelation for the church, revelation for our lives. Ensign.
- Oaks, D. H. (2009, November). Love and law. Ensign.