SHARJAH // Counsellors, students and psychologists joined a forum debate yesterday on the moral dilemmas facing teenagers and their parents.
The discussion followed a call by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, to tackle the taboos of Emirati society.
"Our young people must be able to encounter these contradictions, face these crossroads, confident that viable paths are open to them and equipped with the skills and knowledge to choose their path well," Sheikh Nahyan said as he opened the Counselling Arabia conference in Sharjah.
The forum heard that dysfunctional homes and parents too stubborn to understand their children have left many adolescents seeking different ways to compensate for what their homes lack via "secret" or "unacceptable" relationships.
"Some families are pushing them to do this, they are not hearing nice things from family, so they are looking for another source to tell them these things," said Dr Najwa Aref, a family counsellor from Jordan.
"So as soon as someone tells a girl 'your eyes are beautiful', she says that's it, you're the one I've been looking for."
She said parents needed to accept the problem before they could start to solve it.
"When my daughter was 14, she said 'mum, sooner or later I will have a boyfriend'," she said. "My initial reaction was that I was shocked, but luckily I was equipped with how to deal with this situation. Other parents need to, too, before it is too late - because sooner or later they will all go through the same thing."
Dr Aref said a common mistake by many Arab parents was to punish their children, rather than opening a dialogue with them.
"They believe their right is to have a relationship, to understand life," she said. "Parents, however, see it either culturally or religiously as unacceptable."
Although many have placed blame on western media as having the biggest impact on teenagers, Dr Aref said the idea of having a relationship could be found everywhere, and parents were also encouraging the idea without realising it.
"All parents love for their children to read, they say read [the Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate] Najeeb Mahfouz," she said. "You read it, all about love, and you say 'I want some of this', or 'I want to feel this'.
"It is something natural in teenagers, we just need to know how to deal with it."
Munirah Eskander, a 23-year-old Saudi student at the American University of Sharjah, said television showed "dating without boundaries" as natural and common around the Arab world.
"The religious aspect is not the concern for young people today. What I see as the biggest and the most common problem is dating without boundaries," she said.
"No one says I will not do it because I don't want to go to hell; no, they say because they might get killed.
"It is not a western thing any more, there are programmes in Arabic that show people are dating."
She said interaction with different cultures played a big role in pushing others to start dating. "I see this first-hand, especially at my university, because of so many different cultures getting together."
Dr Aref said the best way to deal with teenagers at this point was to meet them halfway. "For example, you tell your daughter she cannot go to the cinema with her friends, then give her an alternative for you to go with her. Meet her or him halfway. Why not go to his or her world, listen to their music."
She said traditional ways of dealing with children would not work with today's young people.
Dr Mustafa Chakib, a writer and researcher in psychology from Morocco, said: "Today there is Facebook, Twitter and all other social networks. They are bound to get into a relationship, you just need to deal with them right."
He added that research had shown that having relationships too soon had only bad effects. "You can get raped, a sexually transmitted disease, can suffer from early pregnancy, can be beaten by a boyfriend; all these can be avoided," he said.
"Falling in love is good at a certain age; having a broken heart from an early stage is not good, and will affect you negatively in all future relationships."