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Understanding the Dating Process

Teach Your Teen About Healthy Relationships By Guiding How and Who They Date

Think of them as toddlers. That's what Jodi Dworkin suggests when it comes to teens and dating. OK, she didn't put it quite that way, but she does say that dating is an important developmental milestone in the life of your child – like learning to brush teeth, look both ways and color within the lines.

"When we talk about adolescent behavior we don't talk about it in a developmental way," says Dworkin, an assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Minnesota. "But one thing they're going through is identity development, and dating is about learning about healthy relationships. The process of dating is a critical opportunity to learn these skills and to learn to trust their own feelings."

Making and Breaking Rules

Looking at it from a developmental perspective, the toddler/teen analogy makes a lot of sense. And, just as we do with toddlers, we need to set limits and be consistent but also flexible based upon our child's personality and characteristics. Dworkin says this is easier, as most things are, if dating is something that is discussed within the family unit from a very young age. Beyond that, each family needs to set rules that work within their family structure.

One of the first questions that begs to be answered before any rules can be made is the question of age: Is my child old enough to date? While there are no hard and fast rules, Dworkin suggests that you use your child as a guide. Some things to look for are signs that he or she is a responsible person overall, has respect for himself (or herself) and others and is able to stand up for his or her beliefs. A child who is naturally rebellious may not be ready to date without very strict rules until they're 18 or so. A child who can be trusted to follow rules and keep to the family values may be able to date much sooner.

But before we worry about how old is old enough, Dworkin points out that a parent's perception of a date needs to be compared with the child's perception. The traditional idea of dating – a boy asks a girl out, picks her up at a stated time, takes her somewhere and brings her back at a stated time – may be far from what the teen defines as dating. I know this from personal experience, because at age 12 or 13, my daughter, who is now 17, would refer to two of her friends as "going out" even though they never actually went anywhere.

<"Dating to a teen may be just liking someone they see in school and only occasionally talk to, or it may be group dating where they go out with a group of people that includes someone they're interested in," Dworkin says. "Youth peer groups change from early adolescence through teens from same sex/same sex dyads to mixed groups and then to boy/girl dyads." Unless a child is dating someone much older, these social group evolutions tend to provide a natural, gradual introduction into one-on-one dating.

Dworkin also adds that it doesn't hurt to start with some stricter rules – either curfew-related or related to what types of dates a child can have – and then ease them up as the child gets older and has shown more responsibility.

Sandy*, of Ontario, Canada, has allowed her 13-year-old daughter, Jennie*, to go to the movies with Jennie's boyfriend, also 13, but says they usually are together in group situations. "At this point, I do not have rules for my daughter with regard to dating," Smith says. "Perhaps as she gets older we will have to set some, but right now they mainly hang out together, and I see no harm. I truly feel that open communication is the key rather than rules."

Dating Don'ts

While most teen dating is a fairly benign part of the process of growing up, there is one dating practice that experts emphatically do not recommend: allowing a child to date someone much older. For purposes of teen dating, much older may be as little as two years when you're comparing a 14-year-old girl to a 16-year-old boy. Bill Albert, national campaign director of communications for the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says that research over the years has consistently and convincingly showed that dating an older partner raises the risk of sexual activity and pregnancy in teens.

"Sometimes parents look at a situation where their child wants to date someone who is two or three years older and look at it from an adult perspective, perhaps thinking that, 'Hey, my husband is two years older than I am, and it's no problem'. The problem is that kids are not little adults, and even a two- or three-year age difference is significant in the teen years," Albert says. "If your child is 14 and is dating someone who is 17, there will be power differences that can result in an extremely unbalanced relationship."

Other than that, here are some other potential problems that may arise:

Violence

Statistics show that one in three teenagers has experienced violence in a dating relationship. If a child's boyfriend or girlfriend seems very controlling, the child no longer sees other friends or even seems hesitant to go to school, these may be signs of violence in the relationship. It's important to talk to teens and give them help in getting out of troubled relationships since they may not know how.

Sexual Activity

For younger teens, the best way to help them avoid sexual activity is not to allow them to date older partners. For older teens, it's important to continually talk to them about values and what is expected from them. Even if it seems as though they aren't listening, they are. Also, curfews matter, and parents should always know where the children are and whom they are with.

Disliking a Date

Without any concrete reason for disliking a date, banning the child from dating this person probably isn't the best idea. Instead, it's important to make the date feel welcome so that a watchful eye can be kept on the situation. Once again, communication is important. Ask the child what qualities he or she likes in that person.

Just like everything else we've been through with our children since they started rolling over, this too shall pass. Just keep in mind that it's a journey, and encourage them to start slow – with a few rules from you to make it easier on everyone.

* Last name withheld to protect privacy.

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