There is little that will produce anxiety like a parent anticipating their teen entering the dating world. Our culture is frought with rapidly-changing trends, an epidemic of increasingly harmful pornography, sexting, and ambiguous rules and boundaries for teens and adults alike. Parents are understandably confused and apprehensive and often feel isolated without much support in their parenting of teens and pre-teens. They can often feel that if they institute healthy boundaries in the home around their minor child’s relationships, then they will be the brunt of ostracism from their child or even other parents. Teens are not adults yet; their brains, neuropathways, emotions, are simply not developed enough before full adulthood to assume all of the freedoms and responsibilities of dating and monogamous relationships that can mimic adult romantic relationships. Children and adolescents, particularly those living in a one-parent home, can be at risk for sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, school dropouts, depression, domestic violence, to name only a select few risk factors. When they begin dating, whether in a single-parent or two-parent home, teens can become wrapped up in an emotion-packed, hormonal storm of uncertainty, rejection, love, giddiness, romance, hurt, loneliness, depression all in a mixed bag called “dating”.
As the parent, here are some guidelines that may help chart the path of teen dating. You may wish to consider:
- - Starting the dating process gradually by asking your teen’s new romantic friend to have dates at your home, in the presence of your family. Games, church, cookouts, movies, hiking, homework, and the like can be clean, healthy avenues for your teen to begin dating – but at a safe pace and in your presence. The person they are dating will get the impression quickly that you are a family unit and that you are involved in your family. This can prevent your newly-dating teen from being isolated from their family, as well as other friendships and activities while not having to say a firm “no” to dating altogether.
- - Establish clear guidelines in advance of the first date, with your teen. Ask them what they think the guidelines should be, including curfew, as well as a reasonable number of days or hours weekly they should be allowed to spend time with their new boyfriend or girlfriend. Establish ways your teen can be proactive, and assertive, able to ask and insist on healthy boundaries and limits for themselves in a relationship with someone. If your teen doesn’t seem emotionally mature enough yet to do this, this might be an indication that dating alone with someone may need to wait a bit. Make sure your teen, when dating, is not dating someone significantly younger or older than them; they need to be in a peer group that is similar to their own developmental and emotional stage of life. Someone older may be able to seriously manipulate them.
- - Alone-time policy. When left alone, teens can be famously ruled by their hormones and it is difficult to “turn back”. One mistake and a teen pregnancy can occur which will irrevocably change the life course of everyone closely concerned. Statistics report that approximately 50% of girls who become teen mothers drop out of high school and a disturbing 2% earn a college degree, which can easily set up themselves and their new baby for a lifetime of living at or near poverty level – with all of the risks associated with that. A policy of going alone into your teen’s bedroom to spend time together should be established; you may prefer to request they spend time together in the presence of other trustworthy, mature teen friends or adults, such as at group functions.
- - Make your presence known and felt. Girls who do not have a father in the home are statistically more at risk for teen pregnancy, as well as domestic violence. You don’t have to be best friends with the boy or girl your teen is dating, but you can establish a valuable mentor relationship or just a respectful adult-teen relationship. Get to know the person your teen is dating; ask questions, listen to them. They may be more invested in treating your teen well if they have a good and respectful relationship with you. Get to know their parents as well; invite them over for a barbecue. The teens may appear to balk, but at heart they will find a level of security by seeing their respective parents get to know each other and invest in their teens’ relationships, particularly in a culture that has worked hard to discount parental influence altogether.
- - Adolescence is a time of moods, confusion, rapidly-changing dreams and goals and worries about the future. It can be a time of sensitivity and even depression. Most teens are not quite ready as yet to engage in a full-on, heavy, monogamous relationship. Parents need to be aware of the classic psychological abuse pattern and that every teen is at risk for it; it is no respecter of persons, socioeconomic status or family cohesion. Be aware if the person your teen is dating becomes demanding or manipulative, insisting your teen drop their friends, only spend time with them, preferably away from your influence and presence, insults or hurts your teen, insists they turn over social media, telephone passwords, calls and texts many times a day, generally tries to restrict your teen’s healthy relationships, activities, time away from them. If your alarm bells are going off, it may be for good reason. Make sure your teen has a sense of safety and an open line of communication with you and with other trusted adults and is not made to feel isolated and consumed by the person they are dating as this is a classic behavior of intimidation and a precursor to abuse.
- - The Sex Talk. Sooner or later, it needs to happen and in a healthy home, should have already occurred by now. Your children and teens will invariably gain their sense of sexuality, whether it is healthy or unhealthy, mainly from you and how comfortable you are in discussing it. Find some good materials that can stimulate conversation, the earlier the better, about sex and dating. Talk about risks, emotions, feelings, needs. Try to come alongside your teen in this confusing world, not over them as a strict disciplinarian. If you try to force your son or daughter to not have sex, it is a sure sign they may do it anyway. Teens today are having sex for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with sexual arousal, but for love, acceptance, insecurity, loneliness, even boredom. They critically need to hear about not only the physical risks, such as STDs and pregnancy, but about how their emotions and relationships work. Threats don’t work, but love and good, respectful communication can.
Your teen deeply needs connection and socializing; it is how they learn to navigate the storms and rules of life henceforward. They need extracurricular healthy activities and commitments outside of school, such as social clubs, perhaps a part-time job that doesn’t threaten home life or academic work. They need their friendships with their healthy same-sex and opposite-sex friends who are supportive, caring, trustworthy and don’t bully or damage your teen. Your teen needs to know they can come talk to you at 2 AM without getting into trouble for it. Establish a “safe line” where if your teen feels frightened or pressured, regardless of the reason, they can call or text you immediately to come pick them up without fear of shaming, punishment or embarrassment.
This is a milestone in your teen’s life – as well as yours as a parent.We raise our kids to grow wings and fly.They need a lot of good experiences that will round them out and prepare them for eventual adulthood.What they don’t need is a heavy, pressured relationship that ties them down, isolates them, makes them feel bad about themselves and about their family, pulls them away from their solid friendships, dreams for the future, school and social and church activities, and confuses them.Check in with your teen; ask how they are feeling about their relationship.Do they want to date others?Do they feel smothered and don’t know how to get out of it?Do they want to say “no” to the person they are dating but just don’t know how? Teach them how to say “no” (to anything, not just sex or drugs), without guilt or fear.And don’t forget that whether child, teen, or adult, we usually respond better to praise than criticism.Praise your teen (and the person they are dating) when he or she tries hard, minds curfew, and tries to follow the guidelines you have established for dating.
Don’t allow your teen’s dating life to take precedence over time with family, family traditions and holidays, their spiritual life, academics, the hope of perhaps scholarships or future plans of career, or anything else your teen is considering for the future.That might be entering the military, going off to a college out of town or state, applying for a college internship or sports team, or an exciting part-time job, or a study abroad trip.A good marker of the health of your teen’s romantic relationship is how their boyfriend or girlfriend is able to handle these life issues; do they encourage it or do they actively try to pull your teen away from it, or pull them away from anything that takes time away from the romantic relationship?And lastly, get together with other parents; it is a safe bet they have many of the same concerns you might have.Instead of feeling pressured to allow your teen to spend the night with their date on prom night, consider establishing a fun family / social event with their group of friends with adults at least somewhat present.The key is, this is still a minor emotionally, sexually, relationally, physically, neurologically.Don’t let the culture itself, or other parents or your teen pressure or guilt you into what your instincts may be telling you is wrong or harmful for your teen.Keep the lines of communication open; welcome your teen’s friends over to your home and have those talks with them.
A teen can learn many strong lessons about life by having a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.But it’s important that that relationship doesn’t hinder your teen from their everyday, normal life, aspirations, family, support system, plans for the future.