According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children, on average, are now beginning to date at 12 ½ for girls and 13 ½ for boys. How we define dating, however, could change these averages. The recent trend among early adolescents is for boys and girls to spend time together in groups. What do you do if your 12-year-old daughter tells you she has a boyfriend? Freak out? Forbid it? On the other hand, you may have a shy 15-year-old boy who is quietly showing an interest in a girl. Do you prod him along? Encourage him to ask her out? When is the right time to start dating, and then how do you handle it?
What Even Is Dating Anymore?
From meetups at the movies to snapchatting until midnight, dating has taken on different forms. It could be possible that your child is facetiming an interest without your knowledge and that interaction meets their definition of “dating.” How can you know what to look for when you don’t even have the same understanding of dating?
“When discussing teen dating, it’s important to know what your teen actually means by dating. Apparently, there are lots of different words for this vague thing called ‘dating,’ and the words have special meaning,” says Dr. Donna Fargason. “Teens that I know of don’t even use the word dating. They often say ‘talking’ or ‘hanging out,’ and even these terms can be person or relationship specific.” If you’re noticing your child mention terms like this, take a moment to clarify the situation. Dr. Fargason suggests, “If your child/teen is talking about wanting to date or you see evidence that it’s happening or about to, talk to your teen. Ask the status of their relationship with said person and ask them exactly what that means.”
Clarity and communication will prevent misunderstandings. Dr. Roger Butner encourages conversation with your children, “Parents should be periodically asking and checking in with their child regarding his friend group and who he is interested in.”
When Is It the Right Time?
Once you and your child are on the same page regarding what it means to date, you then have to ask if he is ready. Dr. Fargason shares, “Kids start flirty texting and ‘talking’ at various ages and levels of maturity, so I don’t think there’s a magical age for the right age to date. The reality is that kids are curious and will go at their own pace. Be aware of what that pace is. Be in tune.” You know your kids better than anyone else, and their maturity matters when it comes to spending time with someone they like “more than friends.”
Dr. Butner has a more stringent opinion on dating age: “My suggestion overall is parents should be very cautious for a tween to be involved in dating. Developmentally, 10-12 year olds do not have the maturity to navigate a real relationship. Social media allows them to possibly be connected 24/7 if allowed, which puts too much pressure on them. If parents are around supervising, I still say wait until about 14 years old. Generally, kids are naturally interested around 13-14. By this point, you should have already begun a series of healthy conversations.”
You may be looking at your middle schooler with fear in your eyes. What is she thinking? Open up the dialogue. No matter what you are feeling, approach your child with an open mind and heart. “The worst thing to do is come out hard and strong against something without trying to talk neutrally first. If your child announces she’s dating or talking, or whatever word she uses, ask, find out more. Ask about her expectations of what that will involve,” Dr. Fargason encourages.
How Do You Set Boundaries?
Once an interest in dating has been established, it is up to you to set boundaries for your young heartthrobs. Dr. Butner assures that it’s perfectly fine to have boundaries that may not be popular culturally, but that it’s important parents have guidelines, especially when it comes to digital and phone access. “They need your guidance. It’s dangerous when parents assume their kids are just going to figure it out.”
Remember, this world is new to your teens. They may assume since they have been on social media for awhile that they know how to date, but it is your job to teach them, not some stranger on Instagram.
Dr. Fargason recommends clarity and unity between both parents when setting boundaries. She also reminds that “boundaries and rules will vary from home to home and even child to child.” Make those boundaries simple and clear for your children. Dr. Fargason continues, “For instance, in my home, no boys are allowed over if we’re not home, and no boys are allowed in my teenage daughter’s room ever. She is not allowed to go into a boy’s room at his home. I will communicate with the boy’s parents and also him as much as possible prior to dating and let them know our rules so that they can help enforce and be respectful of them. Curfews are also set. They can only go somewhere with other couples. These types of rules change with age and maturity, but they’re a pretty good place to start.”
When you are setting boundaries, keep in mind the expectations on teenagers to be available at all times to their friends and significant others. Dr. Butner shares, “I have teens who come in my office who are so stressed out over relationships. I suggest setting boundaries for days of space [time away from phones]. Parents do not get the amount of pressure that is on kids to be online all the time.” Encourage them that you want them to grow in healthy ways, and taking a break from their phones will aid in positive growth. It’s not about restriction, but about emotional and mental health. Empower them to take ownership over their own emotions, bodies, and minds.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Fargason has some wisdom for you, “It’s so hard to hear things we don’t want to hear as parents, and we often prefer not to know, but the safest place is in knowing–even if there is discomfort. If you haven’t laid the groundwork, that’s okay. Start now. There are no hard and fast rules about how to handle this as a parent, but if you haven’t picked up on it already, open communication and clear expectations are the key!” ■