Emotional and Romantic Life
Emotional development in children according to age
A person’s emotional bonds begin developing at a very early age, well before the person’s first “romantic” relationship, and evolve over time:
- Love for one’s parents and affection for siblings
- The relationship of trust with close family and friends
- Kindness toward others and oneself
- The ability to receive love from others, the desire to please, seduction
- Closeness with another person and reciprocal feelings
- Passion and romantic relationships
From elementary school on, children demonstrate closeness with others (e.g. holding hands, being close to another person, or experiencing strong feelings for a particular classmate or friend). Nearly all children experience loving feelings. In fact, half of all children between the ages of 8 and 11 say they have a boyfriend or girlfriend. These feelings are very often not shared because of their limited development.
For more information on the stages of psychosexual development in children, go to the following websites: Le développement psychosexuel de 0 à 8 ans , the Guide de référence sur le développement psychosexuel des enfants de 4 à 12 ans (PDF 641 Kb) or the Guide de référence sur le développement psychosocial des jeunes de 12 à 17 ans (PDF 640 Kb) (available in French only).
If you observe situations such as those described above, avoid asking questions like “Is that your boyfriend/girlfriend?” It is better to let children appreciate the various degrees of such feelings without assigning a status to them. Since children start to experiment with their capacity to be appealing at a young age, it is essential to begin talking about consent using simple words adapted to the child’s age. For example, you can tell your child that they do not have to hug an aunt or uncle who has given them a gift. Let the child decide if they want to give hugs or kisses.
The earliest romantic experiences usually occur between the ages of 12 and 16. Secondary school is the place where many young people exchange the first signs of romantic attachment (e.g. hugs and kisses), which vary in terms of how acceptable they are considered to be in public.
Since these relationships can be quite intense, it is important to show sensitivity toward young people’s feelings and to recognize how important these relationships are for them.
Romantic attachment is not composed exclusively of positive experiences, however, and may include feelings of disappointment, jealousy, rivalry, rejection and shame. In addition, many adolescents are still bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Young people can also experience violence, harassment and sexual exploitation or abuse. See the Violence section for more information on the subject.
For these reasons, childhood and adolescence are good times to help young people to examine the relationship models that society has to offer.
Modelling that influences emotional and romantic attachment
A person’s emotional and romantic attachments are influenced by the modelling they are exposed to from childhood, beginning at home. Books and toys also influence the perception of romantic relationships, as in stories of captive princesses who wait to be rescued by a powerful prince capable of defending them. In films, jealousy is often presented as proof of love, and persistence after being turned down as proof of perseverance and romantic feeling.
When you watch a film, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there at least two female characters in it?
- Is there at least one scene in which two female characters talk to each other?
- If so, do they talk about something other than men?
This is the Bechdel test . By showing that women are still often reduced to playing the roles of extras, girlfriends or wives who want to seduce or satisfy the main characters, who are male, the test proves that sexual equality has not been achieved.
Generally speaking, the media and advertising firms distort the way in which young people view relationships between the sexes. In pornography, for example, images of submissive women and virile men lead to serious consequences for young people, such as a lack of self-esteem and seeing violence against women as a normal thing.
For more information on the influence of the media, go to the Effects of Hypersexualization page.
Providing models of sexual diversity
When talking to young people about emotional and romantic relationships, it is important to do so in an inclusive manner. In other words, do not convey the idea that heterosexuality is the norm, or that it is preferable to other forms of sexual orientation. And remember that some children are raised by same-sex parents and that exposure to different models of couples is a step toward acceptance of difference.
Many young people do not recognize themselves in the heterosexual-couple model. Even though Québec has made progress in the acceptance of sexual diversity, many people are still victims of homophobia and transphobia. The sooner children have access to diversified models, the sooner they will be open-minded and respectful of others.
Effects of stereotypes on relationships
Stereotypes lead to gender-based judgments and expectations in romantic attachments (sexual double standards). For example, a boy who has a girlfriend, or who seems to be popular with girls will often be described as “a real charmer.” But a girl who says she has a boyfriend is more likely to be cautioned. She will be told, for example, that “boys are not as good at controlling their impulses” and that she needs to beware so that she does not become a victim of sexual aggression. She will also be reminded of the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs).
These spontaneous reactions convey the message that romantic attachments are encouraged for boys but synonymous with “danger” for girls. Even though they may have the best intentions, adults can still express attitudes harmful to the development of healthy and egalitarian relationships.
Here are some more mistaken ideas about the behaviour of boys and girls:
- Boys are always thinking about sex and have more partners.
- Girls are emotionally dependent.
- Boys are incapable of controlling their impulses.
- “No” sometimes means “yes.”
- Jealousy is a sign of love.
- Victims of sexual assault could have avoided the aggression if they had acted differently.
These stereotypical ideas affect young people’s relationships and sometimes lead to serious consequences. Depicting women as vulnerable or passive can open the way to physical, psychological or sexual violence. Moreover, stereotypes that depict boys as physically strong and independent can increase the risk of violent behaviour or the consumption of substances dangerous to their health.
To learn how to recognize sexual stereotypes and how to avoid them, go to the page entitled Effects of Stereotypes on Personal Development.
Relationships in the digital age
Social media, instant messaging and mobile phone apps offer young people new ways to share information and develop relationships. Even if these relationships usually take place in person, many types of online experiences can ultimately affect young people’s romantic and sexual lives. Sexting, dating apps like Tinder or Yellow, and easy access to pornographic websites are part of the discovery of sexuality in adolescence.
It is important to know that:
- young people sometimes feel protected by photo-sharing apps (like Snapchat) because the pictures they send seem to disappear after a few seconds. The traces, however, still exist and are easily accessible.
- for many young people, the boundary between private life and public life is blurred.
- the desire to please can push young people to share intimate images or personal stories of themselves on social media, which puts them at risk for cyberbullying.
Ensuring the safety of young people in the virtual environment is sometimes more difficult since many problematic situations and illegal behaviours can go undetected online.
Cyberbullying involves putting down or insulting another person, spreading rumours about them or threatening them by means of communication technologies. The consequences are serious and long-lasting since a single action can be passed on and copied multiple times.
Many factors can lead a young person to engage in cyberbullying. They include:
- the feeling of being anonymous
- the fact of not seeing the other person (and, because of it, not realizing the serious impact of their actions)
- the hope of deriving certain advantages from cyberbullying, such as popularity or a feeling of belonging
The nature of cyberbullying can also vary according to gender: girls are more often targeted by rumours about their sexual life or through the dissemination or intimate photographs.
To help young people to behave properly online, you can explain the rules of good citizenship to them and give them a list of questions they can ask themselves before posting anything, e.g. “Could this comment hurt someone?”
If you become aware that a young person is a perpetrator, witness or victim in a cyberbullying situation, you can:
- have them describe the situation and the emotions they felt
- ask them how they tried to resolve the situation
- explain how you are going to help them to resolve the situation
- notify the appropriate adults about the situation (e.g. parents, school staff, coach of a sports team)
- institute a “technology curfew” to ensure that these events do not take place during the night
- contact the police, if necessary
For more information on this topic, see the Bullying and Cyberbullying pages.
Sexting is the action of sending sexual messages (“sexts”), photographs or videos using communication technologies. Young people may want to sext for a variety of reasons: for example, to discover their sexuality or to feel closer to a romantic partner. When a sext is shared by two young people of approximately the same age without any pressure or threats, and remains a private matter between them, it does not systematically lead to negative consequences.
This is a risky practice, however, because a picture can end up in the hands of a third party, either by accident or intentionally. The negative consequences can be quite serious, possibly exposing the person in the shared photo to bullying.
The non-consensual sharing of intimate pictures is a crime, whether or not the people who shared the image are adults. Moreover, in some situations, such as when pictures of a minor child are involved, sexting can be considered child pornography.
Sexting is also heavily influenced by stereotypes. Boys and girls who engage in sexting are not judged in the same way and this constitutes a sexual double standard. Boys are generally viewed in a favourable light and said to be “cool” and “street smart.” On the other hand, studies have shown that boys describe girls who sext as “easy” or “insecure,” while girls who do not sext are said to be “prudes” or “snobs.” Sexting therefore places girls in a “lose-lose” situation: whether or not they do it, they are judged more severely than boys and become victims of sexism.
In many cases, too, young people share intimate images under pressure. Therefore, it is necessary to forewarn them, and not only by saying “don’t share photographs of yourself.” Young people need to be told that that it is never ok to harass someone to obtain a photograph of them, or to share an intimate photograph of another person without that person’s consent. It is also essential to explain to young people that they should never do such things to win someone’s love.
Most young people do not engage in sexting. According to one Canadian study , about 26% of 16-year-olds do so. In 2017, in Québec, 12% of secondary school students were asked to share sexually explicit videos of themselves online. Nearly a quarter of the group (22.6%) complied. Young people may also send photos of themselves without being asked.
You can encourage young people to become informed by going to the What is sexting? page of the Kids Help Phone website. You could also suggest that they answer sexting requests with humorous messages, or send funny pictures instead .
When young people sext, they risk opening themselves up to sextortion, which is the practice of extorting money from someone or making other demands by threatening to reveal intimate photos of them. To report a case of online sexual exploitation of minors go to Cybertip!ca .
Children can also be affected by such problematic situations. According to the NETendances 2019 survey (available in French only), 49% of young people aged 6 to 12 use a smartphone, compared with 75% of young people aged 13 to 17.
Teaching young people about sexuality and their emotions
Have you already asked young people what they consider a healthy relationship to be like? What do they know about consent, STBBIs, homophobia, romantic attachments, seduction and intimacy?
Adults who feel overwhelmed by modern relationships or new technologies may be discouraged from talking to their children about sexuality and romantic love. Even though adapting to these realities can be difficult, it is important to talk to your children about it so that they can go on to have healthy and egalitarian relationships in their teenage years and, indeed, throughout their lives.
Here are some tips that parents, or anyone involved in education, can use to broach the issue with 5-to-11-year-olds.
- Do not assume that a friendship between a girl and a boy is a romantic attachment.
- Even if they do not talk about it explicitly, children have feelings that raise questions. Be attentive to them, answer their questions and explain to them that curiosity about sexuality is a normal thing.
- If a child tells you that they have a romantic partner, ask them what this means for them instead of imposing your view on them. Comments like “you’re too young for that” put an abrupt end to a good opportunity for discussion.
- Do not force a child to give hugs or kisses if they do not feel like it. This way, they will learn that they have the right to say “no” and will be able to distinguish between their own desires and those of others.
- Consider sexual diversity when working with children. You can do this through stories featuring same-sex families.
- Encourage diversity in team games and activities; this will foster collaboration rather than competition between the sexes.
- If your child wants to use the Internet or mobile apps, try them out and evaluate the options offered before giving your child permission to use them. You can verify whether these resources are appropriate for your child’s age.
- Do not ignore bullying, whether it occurs online or at school: the consequences are serious. Do not tell a child to ignore the situation and do not assume that they are big enough to resolve it on their own.
It is not always easy to broach the issue with adolescents. Here are a few tips to foster good communication:
- If you want to ask a child about their romantic attachment, use questions like: “Do you have someone special in your life? Are you in love? Are you in a couple?”
- Do not assume that a young person is looking for answers to certain questions, but do check to see whether they might need information: “Where did you hear that? What exactly is it that you want to know? What do you already know about that?” Take children’s ages and psychosexual development (available in French only) into account in your discussions.
- You do not have to have an answer for every question. And if you are uncomfortable dealing with certain issues, do not hesitate to use the services of the school or a community organization.
- Do not be afraid to approach the subject even if you are worried that you will appear to be moralizing; it is your role to guide your child by offering them reference points in their emotional, romantic and sexual lives (at the risk of making them uncomfortable for a short time).
- Keep in mind that young people unconsciously adopt sexual stereotypes that influence their perception of what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship. Talk about consent, respect for intimacy and the importance of always feeling comfortable in a relationship.
- If you become aware that young people were involved in sexualized activities at a party (e.g. wet T-shirt or striptease contest, simulated fellatio, erotic dance) start a discussion about it. Have them weigh the pros and cons and set their limits.
- Help your child to recognize situations of control and emotional dependency. If you have reason to believe that a person’s safety is at risk of being compromised, intervene immediately or call 911.
- Avoid excusing jealousy by interpreting it as a show of love. If you suspect that a young person is in a situation that involves jealousy, help them to realize that it is neither normal nor acceptable.
- Have young people reflect on the various kinds of behaviour (including sexual behaviour) they may be tempted to copy in order to be “popular.”
- Explain the differences between sexuality and romantic attachment.
- Help young people develop their critical sense with regard to pornography, which does not represent an ideal to strive for but quite often consists of degrading images that advocate disrespectful behaviours.
If a young person tells you that they have been a victim of assault, listen to them attentively. Never suggest that they are in any way responsible for what happened to them. Sexual aggression is not caused by someone drinking too much, being careless or wearing certain types of clothing. Remind the person who was aggressed that aggression is always the fault of the aggressor, call 911 for immediate assistance and look for help.
If the victim wishes to find support without necessarily reporting the aggressor, suggest that they call the provincial helpline: 1-888-933-9007.
To find out more about the myths and realities of the sexual health of young Quebecers, see these videos produced by the Québec public health institute (INSPQ) (available in French only).
- Guide d’accompagnement pour le personnel scolaire (PDF 41 Mb) (available in French only)