The prospect of your child wanting to date is a little unnerving – what if they get hurt, are manipulated, get in over their head, or have their heart broken? Yet as uncomfortable or scary as it may feel, dating is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of any young adult’s emotional development. In fact, romantic relationships are a major developmental milestone.
Too young to start dating?
While some teens will want to start dating early, others will have no interest in romantic relationships until their late teens. Both scenarios are perfectly normal and healthy. Experts agree that there isn’t a ‘right age’ to start having relationships – every teen is different, and every family will have different views and beliefs about dating. On average, however:
- Children might start to show more independence from family and more interest in friends between the ages of nine and eleven years.
- From ten to fourteen years, they might want to spend more time in mixed-gender groups. They might meet up with someone special among friends, and then gradually spend more time with that person alone.
- Romantic relationships can become central to social life between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.
Having the Talk
It is important to talk to your teen about various dating topics, including personal values, expectations, and peer pressure. While these conversations may initially revolve around treating other people with kindness and respect, it may also raise issues about sex and intimacy. When it does, be open with your teen about your beliefs around sexual activity and, in turn, listen to theirs.
Give your teen permission to express their views, ask questions, define what feels safe and comfortable for them in terms of dating. If your child knows that you are there to listen without judging, they are more likely to come to you with questions and concerns down the road.
Rules of engagement
Your job is to keep your teen safe while helping them build the skills they need to navigate healthy relationships. Here are some suggested rules you might want to establish for your child once they start dating:
- Get to know anyone your teen wants to date.
- Make it clear you need to know the details of who your teen will be with, where they will be going, and who will be there.
- Set a clear curfew.
- If your teen is going to a date’s home, find out who will be there. Have a conversation with the date’s parents to talk about their rules and your expectations.
- Discuss the dangers of technology. Many teens talk online, which can create a false sense of intimacy. Remind them that people they have chatted with but have never met are strangers. Teens are also often tempted to comply with a date’s request to send nude photos. Warn them of the consequences – they can end up hurt, shamed, and embarrassed.
While it is essential to set clear rules once your teen starts dating, aim to offer your child at least a little bit of privacy. Here you will need to consider:
- your values,
- your teen’s maturity level, and
- the specific situation (as well as your instincts).
Dealing with break-ups
Dating helps teens build vital life skills – independence, communication, caring, selflessness, and intimacy – and promotes emotional growth. Just like starting any new phase of life, dating can be both exciting and scary! Teens will need to put themselves out there by expressing romantic interest in someone else, risking rejection, and figuring out what exactly dating means. They often have unrealistic expectations – reality can never match the relationships in movies or books – which means that they can easily become disillusioned.
Of course, break-ups and broken hearts are part of teenage relationships. However, this too is essential to their development, particularly in terms of learning how to cope with difficult decisions and disappointments. Whether your teen suffers heartbreak or inflicts it, they might need a shoulder to cry on and a willing ear.
As with any other relationship, romantic relationships can bring many emotional ups and downs for your child. Keep in mind that your input and reaction as parent during this stage can have a lasting impact on their future relationships (romantic and otherwise), their lifestyle choices, and the adult they eventually become.
Remember, the more open and supportive you are, the better. After all, if something does go wrong, you will want your child to know that you love them, no matter what.