I think my young teenager is too young to have a boyfriend

Parent Question:
My daughter is nearly 14. She has her moments, but she is generally a great teenager (her older brother was much harder work!). She is fairly self-assured, loves sports and doing well at school and is starting her second year in secondary school.

She has never really had a best friend, but used to hang round with a group of girls, particularly those on her GAA team (she goes to an all-girls school). Over the summer she has got close to a boy in the area. They seem to have met when she was out with a group of girls in the park. Now she seems to be hanging out with him by herself, going to football in the park, cycling, etc. He is the same age as her from a local family who seem decent enough — we know his parents to say hello to in the street but nothing more.

She has not invited him around to the house for us to meet him and refuses to do this. She also refuses to be drawn on whether he is a ‘boyfriend’ and gets embarrassed if I say something like this. Personally, I think she is too young to have a boyfriend and I’d prefer if at her age she was just hanging out with friends. Also, while I think the relationship is pretty innocent, I worry about sexuality and her getting in over her head. Obviously, she knows about the facts of life and we have spoken to her about this when they covered it in school in sixth class. However, I’ve never talked with her about consent, self-respect, sexting, (she is always on the phone messaging him!) dealing with pressure, contraception, etc. My big worry is that she might get pregnant and to be honest I would hate for her to start having sex until she was much older — at least 17 at the age of consent.

I might be naive and old-fashioned but I am just worried. How should I talk to her about all this stuff without putting ideas into her head or it becoming really embarrassing? I just want her to be safe.

You are right to spend some time thinking how to help your daughter navigate her first romantic relationship. Research shows that teenagers who talk to their parents about sexuality, love and relationships are more likely to be safe and to make responsible choices. Further you are right to encourage your daughter to wait until she is older to start a sexual relationship. Teenagers who start sexual relationships younger are much more likely to engage in sex in unplanned, unsafe and less respectful ways. Set at 17 years, the age of consent is a good guide as to when most teenagers are sufficiently emotionally mature to make good decisions about having sex. However, it can be challenging to talk through these issues with young teenagers when awkwardness and embarrassment can get in the way. Below are some ideas to help.

Clarify your own values
When talking to teenagers about sex, they need both the facts and also the values. As well as the mechanics, it is important they hear from their parents how sex fits in the context of loving relationships as well as to understand the dangers and pitfalls. Before you talk to your daughter, think through what values you want to share with your daughter. What key messages do you want to give her about sex and relationships? For example, you are perfectly entitled to say you think she should wait until she is older to have sex or that you would prefer her to have lots of different friendships at her age and not just have a boyfriend.

Pick a good time to talk
Make sure to pick a good time to discuss your worries and concerns. This might be when you are on a walk together and have already had some nice time together chatting about other fun things. You might start the conversation by asking how things are going with her ‘friend’ and to listen about what they are doing together. Rather than pushing the issue as to whether he is a boyfriend or not, you might simply say: ‘Now that you are spending time with boys, who might become boyfriends, it is important you know about how important respect and consent is.’ Sometimes, it works to start with some questions, such as ‘How can you make sure you are treated respectfully in a romantic relationship’ or ‘What age do you think teenagers are mature enough to have a boyfriend/girlfriend’ or ‘How can you deal with someone pressurising you about sex’, etc. Listen to her point of view and encourage her to talk.

It is also important to clearly share your own concerns and point of view, but encourage her to share her thoughts about this — ‘I think you should wait until you are least 17 until you have sex … What do you think?’ ‘Some boys try to pressure girls into doing sexual things such as sending nude pictures, what do you think of this? How could you respond if this happened to you?

Use other opportunities for conversation
Direct conversations about sex can be very awkward with some teenagers. An alternative approach is to raise the topics in a ‘third party’ way when they come up in ordinary conversation. For example, if you are watching a movie where a teenager is in a coercive relationship you can discuss the issue with your daughter by asking questions such as what do you think of what happened to that girl? What should she have done differently? How could her friends/ parents have helped her? You can adopt the same approach with stories that appear in the news media or on social media and use these real or fictional events to discuss challenging issues and to ensure your daughter is well informed.

Appropriately supervise your daughter
Like all young teenagers your daughter needs appropriate supervision. At the age of 13 and 14 teenagers are under pressure from peers and exposed to risks online and in the real world which they may not have the maturity to deal with. As a parent it is important to set appropriate limits and boundaries such as limiting screen time, monitoring social media use and ensuring you know where she is and who she is with when out.

Finally, make sure to keep the channels of communication open with your daughter and work hard to keep your relationship warm and positive. Try to have some daily times together where you chat about ordinary things (such as going for a walk with the dog, collecting her from school, watching favourite TV series, etc) so there is space for her to talk about worries and serious issues if she needs to.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in September 2022. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is www.solutiontalk.ie.