As parents, we look to our children’s teen years with mixed emotions. On one hand, we look forward to watching them grow into adults, navigating relationships with friends and romantic partners and on the other hand, we dread that time, worrying about failed relationships, broken hearts and the inevitable missteps. But for parents of Aspies, this time is even more confusing. Our children struggle with any social interaction and although many long for an emotional and romantic connection with someone else, our hearts ache when this seems out of reach.
Aspie teens don’t understand the dating game. They don’t “get” flirting or the mating game that is played out every day in high school. Their logical, linear thinking and the “say what you mean and mean what you say” mentality doesn’t always lead the way to getting a date, never mind having a girlfriend or boyfriend. But there is hope. While flirting may come naturally for the neurotypical teen, your teen can learn how to navigate these types of social relationships.
Why Dating Is Difficult
Some of the reasons Aspies have a hard time developing romantic relationships are:
- Difficulties in reading body language can lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities
- Some Aspies may become obsessed with a new relationship, not understanding that relationships take time to develop
- For boys especially, making the first move, starting a conversation, asking for a date, is extremely difficult. While it is not unusual or unaccepted for a girl to show her interest, our society still expects the male to do the asking
- Social anxiety issues can prevent Aspie teens from joining in groups or meeting others
Emotional relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships, can be completely exhausting for the Aspie teen and he may avoid these types of relationships because of this Every dating situation is different and while there are “teen rules” about relationships, these may not be understood by your teen. He may need specific steps to follow when entering and maintaining relationships.
While understanding and navigating dating situations is hard, it can be done. With some help and guidance from you, your Aspie teen can find and enjoy a romantic relationship.
How Parents Can Help
Remember, your teen needs you to explain relationships in ways he can understand. Some of the problems for parents, especially those that don’t have AS, are to help your teen understand the abstract concepts of love, friendship and courtship. The following tips should help:
- You should have been working with your teen on understanding body language. Remember, however, that as children mature, body language changes or the meaning of a gesture changes. It is important to continue to review body language and how it relates to romantic relationships. You need to discuss body language from both perspectives: what other teen’s body language may say about their willingness or unwillingness to pursue a relationship and what your teen’s body language may say to the other person.
- Use teen movies and television shows to talk about social situations, dating and relationships. These types of shows, although usually fictitious, can offer a way to help your teen understand the subtle interactions that may go unnoticed. Watch these shows and movies with your teen, stopping to talk about what is going on, why the characters act in a certain way and pointing out scenes that show appropriate flirting.
- Use books that explain teen relationships. You may want to read the book before giving it to your teen so you know what topics the book explains. Once your teen reads the book, you can then have discussions about different topics that were covered in the book.
- Talk about rejection. Most people go through a number of relationships before finding someone they want to “get serious” with. That means rejection. It may be your teen you is rejected or your teen who loses interest in the relationship. Explain that rejection is simply a part of the process. Each relationship should teach your teen something about what he wants or doesn’t want in a relationship. As much as rejection can hurt, most times it is not something your teen has done or not done, it is a matter of deciding if this is the right person for you.
- Explain that attraction is unique to each person. There are general ideas of what is considered “good looking” but attraction is unique. Each of us feels physically attracted to different things. One person may be attracted to warm, friendly eyes, one to the “dark, handsome type.” Help your teen determine what type of person he or she is physically attracted to and explain that there is no right or wrong. That for each person, there is someone out in this wide, wide world that will find him or her attractive.
- Make a list of sensitive topics that shouldn’t be discussed. This can include someone’s weight or appearance (unless giving a compliment, such as "you look nice today) and sexual topics. Make a second list of topics your teen should feel comfortable discussing. Remind him to be aware of body language signaling that the other person is bored or uninterested.
- Talk about the normal course of a relationship. Getting to know someone is a process involving a series of conversations or events. Aspies may find themselves compulsive about a new relationship, which can quickly scare off the other person. Because Aspie’s don’t pick up on social cues, talk about how to know when to move to the next stage of a relationship, list items such as talking, asking for a date, holding hands, first kiss and give ways for your teen to know it is okay to ask if something is okay if he isn’t sure, for example, asking “Is it okay if I hold your hand?” is better than reaching to hold her hand and beign rejected.
- Give your teen opportunities for a date. For example, rather than having your teen not only ask for a date but plan the entire process, have him invite a friend to your home to watch a movie or buy tickets to a local sporting event. It may be easier to say, “Would you like to go to ___ with me?” than to say “Do you want to go out.” You may also want to provide some group activities, which may be easier to navigate for your teen because it takes some of the pressure of making conversation off your teen. However, if your teen has social anxiety issues in group situations, offer some ideas for getting together in a way to make your teen comfortable, for example, you can take your teen and his date bowling, letting them have a lane and you bowling a few lanes away.
Many teens, both Aspies and neurotypical teens, have a hard time understanding and navigating romantic relationships but eventually find their way and learn what they want from a relationship. Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your teen can help him through this process.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.