Teens Holding Hands

Being a parent means committing to guide your child through many complicated and difficult stages of life. You go from changing their diapers, to teaching them how to tie their shoes, to eventually helping them understand dating and love.

The preteen and teen years aren’t easy on you or your child. As hormones fly, you can expect to deal with your fair share of conflict. So when it comes to dating, how can you prepare yourself to deal with potential questions and issues? And what age is appropriate?

This is a statistic that may strike fear in any parent’s heart, so brace yourself. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that on average, girls begin dating as early as 12 and a half years old, and boys a year older. Yikes!

The good news? It may not be the kind of “dating” you’re picturing.

Defining Dating

You may be surprised to hear dating labels like “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” and “together” from the lips of your sixth-grader. At this age, it probably means your son or daughter is sitting next to a special someone at lunch or hanging out at recess.

Groups play a big role in relaying information about who likes whom. Even if your son is mooning over a certain girl, most 12-year-olds aren’t really ready for the one-on-one interaction of a true relationship.

For eighth-graders, dating likely means lots of time spent talking on the phone and hanging out in groups. Some kids may have progressed to hand holding as well. In high school, strong romantic attachments can be formed and things can get serious, fast.

When your child mentions dating or a girlfriend or boyfriend, try to get an idea of what those concepts mean to them. Take note of how your child reacts when you discuss dating. It could be a little uncomfortable or embarrassing, but if your child is unable to even discuss it with you without getting defensive or upset, take that as a sign that they probably aren’t ready.

Other things to consider include the following.

  • Is your child really interested in someone in particular, or are they just trying to keep up with what friends are doing?
  • Do you think your son or daughter would tell you if something went wrong?
  • Is your child generally confident and happy?
  • Does your child’s physical development match their emotional development?

Be aware that for many tweens and young teenagers, dating amounts to socializing in a group. While there may be interest between two in particular, it’s not double-dating so much as a group heading out or meeting up at the movies or the mall. This kind of group stuff is a safe and healthy way to interact with members of the opposite sex without the awkwardness that a one-on-one scenario can bring. Think of it as dating with training wheels.

So when is a child ready for one-on-one dating? There’s no right answer, even if most parents feel strongly that sometime around age 35 is perfect. It’s important to consider your child as an individual. Consider their emotional maturity and sense of responsibility. For many kids, 16 seems to be an appropriate age, but it may be entirely suitable for a mature 15-year-old to go on a date, or to make your immature 16-year-old wait a year or two.

You can also consider what other parents are doing. Are lots of kids the same as yours already dating in the true sense of the word?

Setting Guidelines

When you’ve made a decision, be clear with your child about your expectations. Explain if and how you want your child to check in with you while they’re out, what you consider acceptable and appropriate behavior, and curfew.

And be kind. We may use terms like “puppy love” and “crush” to describe teenage romances, but it’s very real to them. Don’t minimize, trivialize, or make fun of your child’s first relationship.

When you think about, it’s actually the first intimate relationship your child is making with someone outside of the family.

Too Serious, Too Fast?

Teenage relationships can gather steam quickly. Remember that high school romances tend to be self-limiting, but look for warning signs too.

If your child’s grades are dropping or they aren’t spending much time with friends anymore, consider limiting how much time is being spent with that special someone. And be frank about sexual health as well. It can be a difficult conversation for everyone involved, but it’s critical to be honest and clear about the facts.

Easing Heartbreak

With first relationships come first breakups, and those can be painful. It’s important to acknowledge how your child is feeling without trying to pull them out of sadness. Be patient and sensitive, and remember that sometimes just listening is the best thing you can do.

The Takeaway

It can be alarming and uncomfortable to think about your child dating. But don’t pretend it’s not happening (or that it won’t at some point), whether your child has brought it up or not. If you want your child to understand your expectations and rules about dating, you need to express them. Don’t let your child learn about dating from their friends or the media. Start talking casually about what constitutes a healthy relationship to build the framework they’ll use when they’re reading to start dating.