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posted: 1/22/2014 5:45 AM

How parents can help kids build positive connections

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  • When you're talking to your kids about relationships, make sure to really listen to them, experts say.

      When you're talking to your kids about relationships, make sure to really listen to them, experts say.

  • Teenage girls encircled by plastic hoop

      Teenage girls encircled by plastic hoop

  • Four teenage boys sitting by campfire

      Four teenage boys sitting by campfire

 
 

If you want to help your child develop healthy personal relationships, it doesn't hurt to start by working on your own relationship-building skills and taking a close look at your own beliefs and morals, experts say.

That means making time to listen to your kid, setting boundaries for what is and isn't acceptable, monitoring how they're spending their time, putting them in situations to build their social skills and providing more than occasional reminders that you love them, says Tim Wahlberg, a child and adolescent psychologist at the Prairie Clinic in Geneva.

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The Rev. Ken Potts, a counselor and marriage and family therapist at the Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, says it's also a good idea to sort through your own belief system before talking to your kids about the often complicated world of relationships.

"Sit down before you have the conversation and identify your own beliefs and values when it comes to relationships," Potts suggests. "Know what you want to say or teach and then share it."

Potts and Wahlberg say it's important to begin talking to kids about healthy relationships at an early age, but it's even more important to talk to them on their own level, to listen carefully to what they have to say, and to encourage them to ask questions.

A generation or so ago, many kids learned about relationships and, dare we say it, sex, by talking to friends, older siblings or trial and error. Nowadays they're more likely to learn about such topics from the media or the Internet.

Often missing in both equations is parental involvement.

When Wahlberg is at conferences, he says, he often asks parents if they talk about relationships with their children or "have the dreaded sex talk." Surprisingly few hands go up.

The reasons for that vary by region. Many suburban parents, for example, say they're too busy working long hours or juggling myriad other tasks.

But whether it's the suburbs or the city, Wahlberg says there's a trend of kids having too much time on their hands without a responsible adult in sight.

For many, that means spending increasing amounts of time texting or on the web and less and less time directly interacting with people and learning, for example, how to pick up visual cues and subtle hints on where a relationship may be headed.

Of course, sitting down with your child to talk about relationships -- whether they involve sex or not -- "is a hard conversation to have," Wahlberg says. For one thing, parents often assume their kids know way more than they actually do. For another, it's easier to tell your child what you think they need to hear than to gently apply the brakes and ask them what they want to know.

"It helps," Wahlberg says, "to ask your child if they have questions."

Potts agrees and says it's crucial to make sure such conversations are aimed at the "developmental age" of your child. Chronological age is a good guide, he says, but you've also got to consider whether your child is 13 going on 10 or 13 going on 18.

Talking to a 6-year-old girl about adolescent sexuality or birth control is not a good idea, Potts says, but if you're talking to a 16-year-old about the same topics, "it may be a couple years too late."

Potts says many parents miss the mark by bringing too many of their own insecurities into the conversation. A divorced parent who is feeling lonely, for example, may spend too much time telling their teenager about their own life and not enough time addressing the child's concerns.

In addition to honing your listening skills, Wahlberg suggests parents encourage their kids to get involved in extracurriculars.

Whether those activities involve sports, music or even church doesn't matter as much as placing youngsters in situations where they put down their cellphones and actually interact with people on a personal level.

That's key, he says, because in talking to teens, it's not unusual to have them tell you they have 500 or more Facebook friends. But when you ask how many of those "friends" they really know or regularly interact with, the number plunges.

Because a lot of teens don't have a strong core group of friends, he says, their early relationships can take on more importance than they should.

"We're supposed to date so we learn about who we are and what we want out of a relationship and out of a partner," Wahlberg says. But many teens aren't prepared for how to react when things go sour, as they almost always do in the early stages of dating.

Potts says it's crucial for kids to deal with the reality that at some point in most relationships they're going to be hurt and "people will not live up to their own standards." Kids need to learn, he says, "how to live in a world of fallible relationships."

That's where you can come in.

"As a parent, you have teachable moments," Wahlberg says. "You need to take an active role."

Wahlberg offers five basic suggestions for helping children develop healthy relationships.

First, pay attention. Monitor what they're watching on TV, the sites they're visiting on the Internet and the kids they're hanging around with.

When they're having problems, sit down with them and ask "How can I help?" Let your kid steer the conversation and talk to them on their own terms. Understand that most teens want to figure things out on their own, so it's better to ask questions than to lecture.

It's OK to offer advice, but don't talk down to them or belittle them.

And don't be afraid if you discover they're sometimes more comfortable talking to another adult, as long as it's someone you know and trust and who shares your views and values.

Wahlberg admits his own daughters sometimes find it easier to talk to others.

"At work I'm a child psychologist," he says, "but at home I'm just dad."

Second, set boundaries. You can't let your child go through life without rules and then be surprised when they turn 16 and don't come home on time. Don't forget: You're their parent, not their friend.

Third, encourage your child to get involved in activities that will keep them busy and expose them to others on a personal level.

Fourth, monitor where your child is getting their information about relationships. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it may not be the best place for your kid to learn everything about interacting with others or sex.

Finally, don't be afraid to tell your kids you love them and are proud of them.

"Show them," Wahlberg says, "that you care."

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