Ask anyone about their first kiss and a wistful smile crosses their face. Maybe it’s a private smile on the inside, but it’s there. The strong feelings that you had for someone when you were a teen last forever. When ready to date, the feelings that your teen will have for someone will be just as real. But the rules and social norms around teen dating have changed.
So what are the rules for teenage dating?
- Consider your teen’s perception of dating
- Set rules to fit the teen’s maturity
- Talk about dating etiquette and safety
- Monitor social media and set expectations about digital boundaries
- Encourage dating in groups
- Talk every day as your teen gains confidence
Every teen is different and these guidelines may need to be adjusted for your family. You know your teen best. The information here can be applied to teens who identify with LGBTQ, though they’re likely dealing with more layers of social complexity than heterosexual teens. Love and attraction are universal. And, complicated.
Consider Your Teen’s Perception of Dating
Early teenage dating may be unrecognizable as actual dating. In fact, you might mistake it for ordinary friendship unless you really know what to look for. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that girls typically begin dating at age 12 and boys a year later. In my experience teaching middle school, this stage could begin as young as grade 5 when teens who like each other will text and (depending on access to social media) connect in other ways such as on a video app like Facetime or House Party. Young teens and tweens also often socialize in friend groups in which there may be members who are “in like”. You might call it hanging out.
As they move into middle school, the intensity increases. Yet most kids in grades 6 and 7 who are interested in dating – and this varies – are still following this model: socializing in groups, texting, video apps and on social media. From a teacher perspective, this surge of so much mutual admiration in school can be distracting. I try to be sensitive to these feelings, though. They are real and may feel all-consuming to a teen.
Our respect for our teens’ feelings is very much a core Parent Samurai belief. The American Academy of Pediatrics, usually noted for their somber approach to all child development topics, chime in with this whimsical take:
“Adults generally take a cynical view of teenage romance, as if it were a chemical imbalance in need of correction. ‘It’s all about sex,’ they say. ‘You know what they’re like when their hormones start raging.’ A boy and a girl float down the street holding hands, dizzy in love, and all parents see is testosterone and estrogen out on a date.”
So teen dating is a lot more complicated than hormones a-courting. The AAP goes on to remind us that first loves – even puppy loves – are the first close relationship outside the family. When you think of it that way, it’s kinda profound, isn’t it?
Set Rules Which Fit the Teen’s Maturity
In matters of the heart, there is a vast difference in teen development between 12-16 years and their perception of dating will change a great deal over that time. Early middle school is the right time to begin these conversations. Try to avoid overwhelming your younger teen with too much information or expectations too soon, but do continue the discussions to keep up with the changes in your teen. They may seem to happen overnight.
With many teens, the shift to a more pair-focused dating happens in grade 8 or 9. At 13-14 years old the overall tone of dating seems to shift to a more serious one.
Some of the language used in dating may mean different things according to their age. Tweens and teens may speak of “hook-ups”. Ask them what they mean. Younger teens are probably referring to a couple engaging in a kiss or make-out session. To an older teen, it might mean casual sex, in which there is no intention of continuing the relationship beyond that one event. Understanding the reality of the dating norms in your teen’s circle can help you pitch your rules at just the right level.
In our house, dating has been a living topic, albeit one our kids describe as “cringy”. Our teens may hide their heads in their hoodies when it comes up, but we press on, wearing them down and waiting for the turtles to emerge. These conversations are too important to be left up to chance.
Here are some rules which have worked for us:
Set a Curfew – see here for some guidelines about age-appropriate curfew times. At a minimum, you should know where they’re going, what they expect to do there, who they’ll be with and how much supervision they’ll have. You should also have a way to contact them. You may ask for check-ins at reasonable times.
Set a Media Curfew – Teens are immersed in social media and texting. Because so much of today’s teen dating world happens online, it is essential that your teen has a break has a break from the drama – and there will be drama. We’ve written about the need for teens to have unplugged time for family relationships, for sleep, for exercise, for homework, for reading and other activities necessary for a balanced life.
But, SCREENS – especially your teen’s phone – have become so addictive that it takes strength and focused intention to help your kids take a step back from the constant connection. Even if he or she complains [loudly], your teen will benefit from reasonable limits on technology. And, sadly, you will have to take the heat for putting those limits in place.
Monitor social media and set expectations about digital boundaries. Access to technology has made sharing everything in our lives possible in real time, and this one fact changes everything.
And when you consider that the teen brain will not be fully grown until age 25, it makes sense that undeveloped judgment combined with easy access to millions of people can create a perfect storm. Teen dating violence, abuse and cyberbullying are real. To try to minimize the chances kids will be exposed to these life-altering events through electronics, some parents use monitoring apps, some do spot checks of phones, and others follow their kids on social media.
Talk to your tweens and teens about “sexting”- The proliferation of cell phones puts a high-powered, portable computer in the hands of kids as young as 9 or 10. Without wisdom and experience to balance impulsivity, curiosity about the human body and what they hear of others doing may prompt or pressure a tween or teen to send or receive a picture without considering the implications.
The best defense is having open, age-appropriate discussions. With tweens, you can simply say, “We don’t send or receive naked pictures.” You also can use this photo-sharing decision map to help them make good choices. This is a strong beginning, along with some advice about what to do if they receive a picture like that.
With older teens, you can use this excellent resource from Common Sense Media to walk through scenarios or use it as a launchpad for a discussion. Here’s a briefer one from CyberBullying.org with good tips about what teens can do to prevent becoming involved in sexting and what to do if it happens.
Keep the door open for further conversations so that your teens will come to you for help if they make a mistake or are being pressured. The potential for long-lasting consequences of sexting are real, and your calm approach will help strengthen your influence..
Cyberbullying – Remember the online drama I mentioned above? We all know that the intense feelings of attraction and love can turn darker, often on a dime. Relatively few teen relationships last long-term, and when it ends, there are often harsh feelings on the part of the spurned partner or by protective friends on their behalf.
So even among adults with the benefit of fully formed brains, the equation may become:
Anger + hurt + lack of judgment + ready access to social media = lashing out/bullying/public shaming
The prevalence of relating through social media and evolving relationship norms has led psychologists to question whether teens are developing face-to-face empathy necessary to build relationships and resolve conflicts within them.
If you suspect that your teen is the victim of cyberbullying or public shaming, here are some ways to help your teen deal with the attacks.
Supervise teen couples – Though much courtship happens online, they will eventually spend time face to face. Teen couples do need supervision and parents often wonder how much is enough. You don’t need to be in constant sight to supervise teens. In fact, a bit of space can be a good thing – providing space and food may encourage your teen to invite that love interest to your house instead of to other, less supervised places. So, keep the door open if they’ll be hanging out in his or her room. Just the knowledge that you might walk by any minute can be enough.
You should also have firm rules about who can be in the house with your teen when you’re out. Getting to know the parents of a dating partner can be helpful. You can compare notes about rules, expectations and the supervision you can expect when your teen visits their house.
Support your teen’s desire to hang out in groups in safe public places. These activities help them practice growing a healthy relationship with the opposite sex in a fairly low-risk situation.
Have age-appropriate discussions about dating etiquette and keeping your body safe. I can’t overemphasize this point: Be sure that the information about keeping safe comes from you and from balanced sources like the Centers for Disease Control Dating Matters Website.
In addition to the more obvious topics like explaining the risks of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, it’s critical that teens are forming emotionally healthy relationships. The ideas that kids form about attachments in their teens will have long-lasting effects throughout their lives. In fact, the CDC reports that the escalation of teen dating violence calls for a critical focus on helping teens develop communication skills and management of emotions during their early experiences of romantic attachment. A teen who is abusive or abused is more likely to continue this pattern during their lifetime.
According to the CDC and other sources, the cost of doing nothing is high, “Approximately 1 in 7 female teens and 1 in 19 male teens reported experiencing sexual dating violence in the last year”.
I had to read that statistic aloud to my teens a few times before I could really absorb the reality of it.
Talk Every Day as Your Teen Gains Confidence in Their Dating Self
By now you’re probably worried about all the possible hazards that lie in wait for your unsuspecting teen. Remember that dating is a normal part of discovering who they are, where they will fit in the world and what they value in a partner.
They’re lucky to have you in their corner. Knowledge, communication and attention to your kid’s emotional progress through this maze will help them in the journey.
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