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Understanding the world of adolescent relationships
Issues often arise between parents and their children with regard to students engaging in close personal relationships or what has been traditionally labelled as having ‘girlfriends’ and ‘boyfriends’.
The National Safe Schools program, recently subject to parliamentary scrutiny and amendment, has brought attention to issues of gender, sexuality and relationships, and the way in which young men and women characterise themselves with respect to others. Most adolescents will feel pressure, intrinsic, extrinsic or both, to define themselves, at least in part, through relationships. It is this expression on the path to adulthood that causes much angst amongst educators and parents.
There are important questions that parents and teachers must ask themselves with respect to adolescent children, relationships and sexuality. For example, questions could be asked such as:
What do parents expect of their adolescent in a heterosexual relationship?
How do parents view intimacy between their child and his or her girlfriend/boyfriend, including the possibility of sex?
Another set of questions could be:
How would I talk about relationships if my adolescent is homosexual?
What importance do I place on defining someone by their sexuality?
Or, how would my perception of family change if a family member identified as gay or lesbian, transgender or asexual?
Of course, many parents will question the wisdom of asking these questions. After all – why should any of these matters be of consideration at all?
Assuming that an adolescent will be drawn to attempt at least one close personal relationship, some of the issues that need to be considered include the role of technology, expectations, adult role-modelling and acceptance. In the current age, approximately 43 per cent of Australian married couples divorce and de facto relationships and single parent families are more prevalent now than at any time in Australia’s history.
Taking what we deem as most common first – heterosexual relationships – in these days of smartphones and selfies, how are the sexual boundaries of adolescents to be negotiated? Instagram provides a ready forum for the posting of selfies that can inappropriately imply a young person is actively sexual. If a boyfriend/girlfriend requests, or is sent, a sexually implicit or suggestive selfie – how are adults to manage this? How are adults to negotiate the space where there are two worlds – one of which is hidden in snapchats and on adolescent social networks? Should parents ‘friend’ their children on Instagram and Facebook in the hope any sign of inappropriate intimacy can be spotted early and addressed?
Technology complicates the definition of sexuality, as much as it can provide solace, support and freedom. On the one hand, technology provides access to endless media that reinforces gender stereotypes. On the other, technology can provide access to information for teenagers isolated through a lack of personal information. In this way technology can act as a ‘lifeline’. This can especially be the case for students who are gay or lesbian.
Technology can bring mixed issues for LGBTQI students. A student at a boarding school had the experience of trying to find out information about support groups for gay and lesbian youth, having felt condemnation and rejection from parents. The school that the student went to had listed the sites as ‘blocked’ on the grounds of pornography. In this case, the lack of access provided by the available technology compounded the students’ fear and feelings of rejection. When schools censor information it can create problems not considered by the censors.
Teachers need to be careful about the implied stereotypes they deem to be ‘normal’. It is common for teachers to assume that boys have or want girlfriends and that girls want to have a boyfriend. “When you grow up and get married”, may well be said in many classrooms through a child’s life. How should teachers recast this statement in classrooms so as to be more inclusive? Should teachers avoid saying such things?
Complications arise also with respect to cultural diversity and expectations. If parents cannot accept an adolescent having an intimate or close personal relationship, then the issues that arise in respect of relationships will remain hidden.
One student asked recently whether she should disclose that she had a boyfriend to her father (having already told her mother). When she did tell her father he responded with, “What is the bastard’s name?”
I once heard an Indian father comment to his 17-year-old son that he could never accept a ‘white grandchild on his knee’, when the boy told his father his girlfriend was ‘Australian’.
Casual comments, made innocently or otherwise, can have lasting effects on a child’s sense of what is right, what is normal, what is expected and what is tolerated; what should and should not be. Impacts to mental health arising from care dressed as cruelty can be long lasting.