No More Cooties! When Your Teen is Attracted to the Opposite Sex

The school cafeteria often serves as a snapshot of the state of relations between the students from Mars and the students from Venus. In the primary grades, boys and girls likely sit together, sharing Sun Chips and poking at each other playfully. However, by the fourth grade, things are drastically different. For the most part, the cafeteria becomes segregated with “boy” and “girl” tables.

When we were kids, we used to see it as a parasite thing: Those of the opposite sex definitely had a bad infestation of cooties, so you steered way clear! Today, the polarization is emphasized with rhymes, “Girls rule, boys drool,” or the other way around, depending on your perspective.

Then, something astonishing happens around the end of the seventh grade. Boys and girls start to pair off and sit together. For young teens, it’s a time when each new day offers equally exciting and confusing signals that are sent back and forth from boy to girl like errant ping pong balls. For parents, it’s a time of high anxiety and stress, as memories of their own trials and tribulations with the opposite sex painfully are remembered.

Primping and Texting

How does a parent know when her teen has dipped his toe into uncharted waters? Is it when he starts to fix his hair and check himself out in the mirror?

It’s necessary to be aware of subtle changes, because your teen might not share his private thoughts with you. Sarah Burningham, author of “Boyology: A Teen Girl’s Crash Course in All Things Boy” (Chronicle Books, 2009) and “How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl’s Survival Guide” (Chronicle Books, 2008), says, “Most teenagers probably won’t come out and say they’re interested in someone. In fact, denial is a good first sign. You might notice your teen is talking about a certain someone a lot; yet, he insists he doesn’t ‘like’ that person. Other clues to look for are lots of texts and phone calls from one person.”

Once you know, you might find it difficult to communicate with your teen about his new attraction. “It’s important not to trivialize your teen’s relationships. Even though it might seem like puppy love, those feelings of first love are real, and dismissing them will only make your teen feel like he can’t talk to you,” Burningham suggests. The best thing, she says, is listen. “Don’t offer too much advice. Instead, you can help your teen come to his own realizations about relationships by asking questions about what he is getting out of a relationship. Remember, the goal is to help your teen build healthy relationship patterns.”

Setting Firm Rules

Parents also should tune in to a heightened awareness of all friends — both male and female — and of the teen’s whereabouts. Teens will fight this because they want to be independent. There has to be a level of trust, as well as a specific set of rules. “Every family has different rules. Be sure to set your rules early and stick by them,” Burningham recommends. “Make it a tradition that dates come into the house to meet you before your teen goes out. If it’s expected and started early, it doesn’t have to be a fight every time.”

She also suggests setting a private texting code your teen can send if something goes wrong or she needs your help. “A lot of the teenagers I interviewed (for the books) used their parents as excuses to get out of uncomfortable situations.”

Be prepared that this is the beginning of an endless period of testing out new boundaries and finding that middle ground where both you and your teen can feel comfortable.