An open, non-judgemental relationship with your child is the key to his healthy relationships with the opposite sex.
Question: According to one survey, how many teens (ages 12 to 17) say they regularly go out on dates?
A: 25 percent
B: 36 percent
C: 57 percent
D: 68 percent
If you guessed C (57 percent), you’re right! More than half of teens surveyed by Mediamark Research in 2002 said they regularly go out on dates, while about a third claimed to have a steady boyfriend or girlfriend.
Whether you’re the parent of a teen or a ‘tween, you probably have mixed emotions about the idea of your child dating. On one hand, you’re nervous about what’s happening and worried that things could progress into a sexual relationship. On the other hand, you may view this time as an exciting “rite of passage.” In either case, you no doubt want to support your child during this often challenging time and the good news is that you can.
What is Teen Dating?
So your 13-year-old daughter is “dating.” What does that mean? For most middle school kids, dating is pretty innocent and mainly involves passing notes in class and talking on the phone. “When I was in middle school, I’d talk to my boyfriend every night on the phone and go to movies on the weekend,” says Jesse, now 18. “The big thing was going out with a group of friends and your boyfriend would be with them.”
As teens mature, so do their relationships. While talking on the phone and going to the movies or the mall are still common, older teens now have added mobility thanks to newly-acquired driver’s licenses. Some teens enjoy staying home with their boyfriend or girlfriend to watch a movie. It is during these years that dating often becomes more intimate, sometimes progressing into a sexual relationship.
As a parent, you may feel torn during this time, wanting to give your child space while still protecting him. Judy Freudenthal, LPC, LDC, and clinical director at the Oasis Center in Nashville, says parents can do both. “Although it can be intimidating for parents, to deal with the kind of privacy that goes with dating, their kids are doing some really important developmental work there,” she says. “They can help them figure out how to have an intimate relationship, and not just sexually.”
Communication is Key
We all chuckle when we hear horror stories about “the talk” some parents have with their teens, but the truth is that establishing a dialogue with children at an early age can be much more effective.
Freudenthal, who has counseled teens and parents and also facilitates parenting workshops, says that using everyday situations to listen to your child can be informative and comfortable. “Maybe you see something on TV and just segue that into checking things out and doing a lot of listening,” she says. “You want to hear how your kid is thinking about certain things, rather than doing a big interrogation.”
Anne Moore, MSN, RNC, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University and a women’s nurse health practitioner, says that having open communication with her three children has been essential. “When I was a teen, my mother trapped me in a moving car [to have “the talk”], and I was mortified,” she says. “For my kids, a foundation of understanding what is right and wrong has been helpful. They also know they can come back and talk to me if they have questions.”
If teens feel like they can talk to their parents about anything and get their questions answered, chances are they will. “Early on my mom had this idea that if I was willing to ask, she was willing to answer. That allowed me to build confidence in her,” says Derrick, 18. “She’d say, ‘These are your options. Look at them and then make your own decisions.’ That helped me to grow as a person.”
Boundaries Lead to Trust
With open communication as a foundation, parents need to talk to their teens about various boundaries involved in dating, says Brian Burgess, assistant principal at Brick Church Middle School. The co-founder of Forefront Families, Burgess facilitates parenting seminars and has been working with children for 30 years. “There are boundaries of time. You know, ‘I’m going to give you a time to be home, and if you’re not home, there will be a consequence,'” he explains. “And there are boundaries of how far they go with dating as far as the physical side of things is concerned.”
Helping teens set limits, especially when it comes to physical intimacy, is a way to prepare kids before the situation arises. Ruthie, who is 17, says parents can do teens a great service by just encouraging them to think about what could happen. “I think a good approaching is saying, ‘You’re going to be faced with pressures. You’re going to want to do stuff or not want to do stuff. You might want to think about different decisions or situations before they come up and just know how you feel,'” she says.
Of course, not all teens will respond the same way to boundaries. “It’s human nature not to want to be controlled. But it’s important to build up trust,” Freudenthal says. “With each kid, you have to figure out the rhythm of their need for freedom and restriction. When the kid has some input into it, it is really positive. So is being consistent but with some flexibility.”
When boundaries are respected, they can lead to peace of mind for parents. Burgess, who is the father of two grown children, says that trust is a powerful influence on teens. “If you really want to be quite free in your thoughts when your child is out with another child of the opposite sex, if you give them responsibility and have built up that trust and that love, the last thing that kid wants to do is hurt his parents.”
You’re Not Alone
Of course, it’s also important that you trust the people who will interact with your child, and that extends to the parents of other teens in your child’s peer group. Getting involved in your child’s school and extracurricular activities is one way to build that trust by allowing you to connect with other parents and have time to talk about shared experiences or concerns.
Burgess says that if your child plans to spend time at the home of another teen, whether they’re dating or not, it’s important to contact those parents and to let your child know of your plans to do so. He says, “Tell them, ‘We will be calling the parents to be sure they’re going to be home and involved.'” Freudenthal agrees. “The more parents talk to other parents, the safer they feel with one another. It’s not just you out there all alone.”
That support can come from other sources as well. In fact, your child may find it easier sometimes to talk about dating with another trusted adult, and that’s OK. “We really emphasize to parents that it’s good to have another adult who you value so that teens have other people to talk to; it can be an awkward conversation on certain topics,” Freudenthal says.
For Derrick, being able to talk to cousins who he refers to as his “big sisters” helps him a great deal. “They’re older, and my mom trusts them,” he says. “We have that relationship where I can go to them and they’ll give me the version I need to hear. They can make it more ‘now.'”
If your relationship with your teen is open and trusting, you just might find your child’s early dating years to be less nerve-wracking. “Even though you might be a little bit weary and biting your nails while your child is out there, after a while you can relax because you know that they’re coming back, and they’re talking,” says Burgess.
Liz C. Taylor is a local freelance writer.
HELP FOR PARENTS:
The Oasis Center and Forefront Families offer workshops designed to help parents of teens. For more information, contact the Oasis Center at 327-4455 or Forefront Families at 877-4FRONT1.
IN TEEN WORDS:
What Parents Can Do To Help Dating Teens
“Make yourself the kind of parent that allows you and your kid to have a good relationship. That way you don’t have to sit them down and talk about sex or drugs or alcohol. They’ll just come to you.” – Jesse, 18
“Make sure as parents you are always building your kid’s self-esteem. Reinforce that they don’t have to do things or shouldn’t expect certain things. Make sure that kids know about themselves before they get into that situation.” – Ruthie, 17
“Don’t always jump to conclusions. There are teens out there who do make the wrong decisions. But don’t expect your child to do the same thing. If you want to know about anything, just ask.” – Mariam, 16
“By being honest, open and having a good relationship with them, you can make the dating transition a lot easier.” – Derrick, 18