Who doesn’t love a little romance? The answer to that question may depend on your children’s ages and their interest in the topic.
If you have a preschooler with a budding romance, you probably find it equal parts adorable and amusing. If your child is in early elementary school, you might be enjoying the “cootie” years, when your child has little interest in the opposite sex or romance of any kind—with the possible exception of a crush on Ariana Grande or the Dolan twins.
Once your child enters middle school, young romance takes on a more serious edge, and by the teen years, it can cause panic and terror in the most resilient parent.
After all, we can all remember our first romance with fondness, right? The trouble is, we may also remember being less than honest with our parents at that age.
The key to surviving the dating years from the other side is to be prepared with information about teen dating and having a plan for how you will handle various dating situations. Consider these common questions about tween and teen romance:
Is teen dating a thing of the past?
In the traditional sense, yes. According to Child Trends’ Databank Indicator on dating, the number of students who date has declined in the last 25 years. For instance, the percentage of high school seniors who went on more than one date per week has fallen from 34 percent in 1991 to 16 percent in 2013. That shift is likely because of today’s trend toward hanging out in mixed-sex groups.
So most teens aren’t having sex these days?
That’s difficult to say, since polls contradict each other and teens’ definition of “sex” is inconsistent. The Center for Disease Control reports that only about 41 percent of teens have sex in high school (that’s a lower percentage than when we were teens). It also seems like they are waiting until they are older to start having sex. Only 16 percent have had sex by their 15th birthdays, compared to 30 percent of 15-year-olds in 1994.
Parents should understand that just because teens are not dating in the traditional sense, and may not be defining sex the same way we did at their age, that doesn’t mean they aren’t sexually active. Hooking up without being in a relationship is becoming the norm. About two-thirds of teens say their friends have hooked up. To teens, “hooking up” can mean anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse. If your teen is talking about people hooking up, ask her specifically what she means by that term.
What is a good age to let your child begin dating?
Teens vary so much in development and maturity that there’s no hard and fast rule for what age is “right” for dating. Besides, dating means different things at different ages. To a 13-year-old, it may mean just texting or dancing together at an eighth grade dance. To a 17-year-old, dating probably means actual one-on-one dates in a car.
“If a teen is determined to ‘date,’ they will find a way—quite possibly in secret—which is not what any parent wants. My recommendation is to listen, communicate, and listen again,” says Amber Boyle, MS, LPC-IT. A professional counselor working with adolescents on a variety of mental health and social issues, Boyle is a parent and stepparent of five children, ages 3-1/2 to 19.
Boyle recommends having a frank conversation to eliminate any assumptions about what dating means to your kids, adding that this is a great time to discuss sex and sexually related topics. “Whether your child is interested in sexual activity or not, they should know the facts, the risks, and how to be respectful, safe and responsible. Knowledge is power.”
What should I know about dating and technology?
Technology and social media make it easier than ever to accelerate intimacy. In a 2014 survey of undergrads, more than half of the respondents said they had participated in sexting as teens, and more than a quarter of respondents had sent provocative photos.
It's important to talk with your teen about this often. Talk about child pornography, cyber stalking, cyber bullying, sexual pressure, sextortion, and how some seemingly harmless decisions could turn harmful. “Think three steps ahead and about all possible consequences to any decision. Nothing is private on the Internet,” says Boyle.
Encourage an open discussion and offer resources where your teen can find information, such as ConnectSafely.org.
Are there other issues I should be aware of?
Dating violence is nothing new, but you might be surprised to know that it affects more than 10 percent of high school students. In 2013, about one in eight high school girls reported being a victim of dating violence (being hit, slapped or physically hurt) in the past year, notes a recent Child Trends report.
Boyle encourages parents to watch their teens and their significant others for any obsessive, possessive or overly dependent behaviors. “In this situation, a parent may need to step in and make some tough decisions—and may need some professional help with it,” she says.
Finally, Boyle reminds parents that kids will make mistakes and they will break rules. The frontal lobe—the part that governs considering consequences, taking responsibility, making rational judgments—doesn’t finish developing until the early to mid-twenties.
“It’s most important for parents to be their child's ally, sidekick, cheerleader, mentor and role model through the teen years.” Healthy, consistent and positive communication will go a long way.
Maureen Connors Badding is a freelance writer and mom. She is the regular Tweens & Teens columnist for Metroparent.