We’ve all seen the pitfalls. Teens we care about start dating, and they quickly:
- Go off the grid with their new person for several months.
- Change their identity to match their new boyfriend/girlfriend.
- Ride an emotional roller coaster of fear & elation.
- Their only topic of conversation is the other person.
How do we, their pastors and mentors, help them to develop healthy relationship habits?
Here are a few things I’ve learned the hard way:
BEGIN WITH A GROWTH MINDSET VS. FIXED MINDSET
Carol Dweck, Ph. D., discovered the importance of cultivating a Growth Mindset, the belief that we are capable of growth and change, and approach relationships with the goal of learning and growing. She terms the opposite as a Fixed Mindset, the belief that my qualities are good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. With this mindset, if my relationship fails, it is proof that I don’t (and won’t ever) measure up. With a Growth Mindset, our goal is to help students learn. Having this approach, we can help students to engage each situation with more ‘Big Picture’ awareness that their current relationship can be an opportunity to learn how they do and do not want to have future relationships.
HELP THEM TO CREATE A LIST OF NON-NEGOTIABLES
I have always encouraged teens to create a list of Relationship Bigs. Not the unrealistic kind you may be picturing. At 15, mine would have been 1. Surfer 2. Plays the guitar 3. Adores me. Not the makings of a solid relationship… The real list includes the things that they value, and would want someone they date to value as well.
To help narrow this down:
- How they spend their time
- How they spend their money
- How they treat other people
A list of Bigs gives us a point of reference in later conversations as we help guide students toward owning personal standards for their relationships.
EMBRACE YOUR ROLE AS A GUIDE
Youth leaders can help by truly being GUIDES. The best guides in my own life as a teen (and an adult) were masters at asking questions and LISTENING. They taught me how to think through situations for myself by NOT telling me what to do. I get it, though.
It’s so difficult to watch a student we care about careening toward relationship implosion and scream, “”STOP!!!! That’s really gonna hurt!” the same way we would to a toddler running toward traffic.
But everything about their developmental level tells us that they need to become their own person and sense some control over their own choices. Our role as a guide is to help students learn how to think about things with a growth mindset.
COMMUNICATE WITH COMPASSIONATE CURIOSITY
This is my default when my self-control is shrinking and the advice is right on the tip of my tongue (“You should just…You need to…”). Compassionate Curiosity allows us to non-judgmentally help them to make connections, anticipate consequences (both awesome and terrifying) and remind them that we’ll be there regardless of the outcome.
Recently, while talking to a 17-year-old senior, I found myself thinking, “You know that girl is bad news. She’s cheated on you three times! You should just break up with her and be done!”
INSTEAD, I said:
- “With what you’ve known of her, do you feel like she’s given you a good reason to trust her?”
- “What’s the worst thing that would happen if you didn’t…?” Anxiety can keep students in a state of avoidance (If I just don’t think about what will happen, it will be ok.)
- “Remind me of your list of Bigs. Does she line up with your ‘list’?”
- I ended, as always, with some form of thanks for his trust, and a reminder that I am here for him, no matter what he chooses to do. (I never, ever, say, “I told you so.” I can’t think of how that is redemptive in any context.)
During rare times when students say, “What do you think about this?” I will tell them but end the statement with some kind of question for them to process. For example, I recently said to a sophomore, “I notice that since you and Trey started dating, you seem upset more than you used to. Why do you think that is?”
Approaching our role as a guide with intention often allows us to share in their relationship celebrations and (share comfort food over) heartbreaks.