8 Tips for Parents on the Modern Tween and Teen’s Culture of Hooking Up and Hanging Out

February 11, 2016

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Posted in: Hot Topics, Teenagers

Topics: Relationships

How old were you when you were first allowed to date? Did your parents have rules about when you could first “go out” in a group, and later, on a “real” date?

If you’re a parent of a middle or high school student, you might find that the rules your parents had for you no longer apply. Today’s tweens and teens don’t date in the traditional sense as we know it. For instance, when I was in school, it was a big deal for a guy to call me on the phone. If my parents answered, they wanted to know who he was and why he called. If my brothers answered, they’d most likely know who he was, and whether he was fair game for teasing and telling. However, with the advent of digital technology, it’s very likely that parents (and siblings) may have no clue that their child is even in a relationship, as today’s tweens/teens are often engaging completely in private, and sometimes primarily through texting. So, what’s a parent to do given that the rules have changed so drastically in a single generation?

Here are eight things to consider:

  1. Early romances influence our life-long attitudes about love, and even about ourselves. Thus, the kinds of decisions your child makes—and the way we as parents react to those decisions—may have life-long consequences.
  2. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to appropriate ages for kids and “dating.” Parents often ask me when kids typically have their first crush, or at what age it’s most appropriate for them to begin “dating.” Unfortunately, this is something that is hard to quantify. It’s as silly as saying that there is steadfast age to get married, or to fall in love. There can be great variation between when a child has a first crush, and when he or she is ready to become involved in a romantic relationship. The best advice is to know your child, and to know the people your child is spending time with.
  3. Social media is a major tool for getting involved in a relationship, and a major vehicle for flirting and expressing interest in a potential partner. Recent research from the Pew Research Center has shown that texts, phone calls, and in-person hanging out are the main ways teens spend time with their significant other. Middle school dating may involve communicating primarily via texts and chats. Though their relationships by our standards may seem shallow and fleeting, remember that they are all-consuming to them.
  4. Be aware of the possibility of physical and emotional abuse. Talk to your teen about what constitutes inappropriate behavior, and assure him or her that he or she can discuss anything with you.
  5. Be aware of scams such as “catfishing,” and other abuse via social media. Cyberbullying is a growing trend, and it is particularly harmful in the context of a romantic relationship. “Catfishing”—that is, using a false identity on social media to get someone’s attention—is becoming more common, and is happening at younger ages. Make sure you’re knowledgeable about the issues facing kids these days, and keep an open dialogue about these things with your tween/teen.
  6. Don’t wait for an incident to happen before you bring up the topic of sexting. Remind your child that once an image is sent, it’s out of his or her control forever. It’s especially hard for pre-teens to believe in a concept like “forever,” so it’s up to you to provide concrete examples of what that means. For example, if your tween indicates that a Snapchat only lasts for a few seconds, remind him or her that anyone can take a quick screenshot of a Snapchat picture.
  7. Start talking about sex prior to middle school. The Kinsey Institute reports that by age 15, about a quarter of teens have had sexual intercourse. Our kids are surrounded by sexual innuendos in clothing stores, in the music they listen to, and in the movies and shows they watch. It’s up to you to counteract this unfortunate fact by reiterating that a relationship is the foundation for sex. Talk to your child about what constitutes respect, love, and fulfillment, and tie these concepts over the years into sex and more intense, intimate relationships. Don’t be afraid to express your family values on this topic, and be specific about your viewpoints; pre-teens and teens have a tendency to make up their own rules (and justifications for their behavior) as they go.
  8. Keep talking. One discussion isn’t enough to explain dating, sex, and appropriate behavior. Make the best use of any moment you can to talk with your child about your values, morals, and limits of safe behavior. While you can’t do much to protect your tween/teen from the inevitable bumps and bruises of first (and later) loves and crushes, keeping the lines of communication open now helps to set the stage for life-long open communication on relationships, love, and life.
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Ellen Braaten

Ellen Braaten, Co-Director

Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. is co-director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospi...

To learn more about Ellen, or to contact her directly, please see Our Team.