The Birds and The Bees of Kids and Dating


Posted in: Teenagers

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Relationships

The first romantic relationship for a teen, or particularly a pre-teen, can strike terror in the heart of a parent. Rarely are parents ever prepared for their child’s inevitable first crush or real relationship. It’s a huge milestone in a child’s development, and for many parents, it’s the first real evidence that eventually their child will “belong” to someone else. It’s a time filled with nostalgia for the past, and worries for the future; you may be concerned that your child lacks the ability to handle the responsibilities of dating, and also be uneasy about their entering into sexual relationships.

For the purpose of this blog, let’s look at those parental concerns from two angles: from the vantage point of a parent whose child isn’t ready for a serious relationship, and from the vantage point of a parent whose child is ready for a serious relationship.

If you’re the parent of a child who is too young to get serious, your concerns are valid. Research indicates that if a child has a first date between 11 and 13 years of age, there is a 90% chance of that child becoming sexually active by the senior year of high school. This chance declines to 50% if the first date occurs at age 14, and even farther to 20% if the first date isn’t until age 16. Now, this research is just correlational; in other words, early dating doesn’t cause someone to become more sexually active. Buti it does indicate that these two things are associated, meaning that you should be more mindful of these issues if your child is dating at an early age.

If your child is mature enough to date—and she is dating—you’re in a position to make a positive difference in her life. In some ways, describing a teen relationship as a “dating” issue is somewhat “dated,” as most kids don’t “date” these days. It’s the rare high school female who has a boy pick her up to go to the movies. Most kids go in groups, or “meet up” without parents ever knowing about it. Group dates or parties aren’t bad, but they do increase the possibility that if kids are doing something inappropriate, they may succumb to peer pressure. More importantly, doing things in groups doesn’t mean your child isn’t having sex. In fact, kids seem to be doing things backwards these days—formal dating is becoming less common, while sexual activity is becoming more the norm. 50% of teens ages 15 to 19 have engaged in oral sex, and on average, most people have sex for the first time at age 17. 61% of youths have sex by age 18. The chances are likely that your child will have sex while still in high school. Given the health consequences of sex, this is a conversation you need to have. And, you need to start having these conversations before even middle school.

So, what are the things you need to consider?

Dating is an important part of developing a healthy sense of self, and one’s relationship to others. Dating and romantic relationships give your children the chance to practice skills they will use for a lifetime. Through these relationships, they learn to give-and-take, how to communicate, and how their behavior affects someone else. Be there to listen and advise when they ask your opinion. This is your opportunity to influence their developing skills, particularly if you’re not judgmental.

Encourage group and school activities so that they have outlets other than romantic relationships.

Talk about sex starting in elementary school, and reiterate relationships over sex. Talk to them about what constitutes respect, love and fulfillment, and over the years, tie this into sex and more intense relationships. Don’t be afraid to express your family values on this topic, and be specific about your viewpoints, as pre-teens and teens have a tendency to make up their own rules (and justifications for their behavior) as they go.

Kids don’t just have sex at night. After school is prime time for kids to get into trouble, and this is particularly true for middle school students. Teens are more likely to have sex when there is less after school supervision. Plan your schedules with this in mind.

Be clear about your rules regarding curfews and the use of technology. Encourage your kids to make your house the “hangout” place, but make sure they know—and abide by—the rules for what constitutes appropriate behavior. Make sure they know the appropriate use—and misuse—of the Internet and social media.

Be aware of the possibility of physical and emotional abuse. Talk to your teens about what constitutes inappropriate behavior, and assure them that they can discuss anything with you.

Finally, keep in mind that while these issues of the heart look so transient to us, they are not perceived that way by our kids. A broken heart can be devastating at a young age—and the first one can be the hardest. These relationships affect a child’s mood and performance in school. As a parent, you need to be aware of what your child is doing, while keeping the lines of communication open. You need to strike a balance between not judging, while clearly being judgmental if her behavior is putting her at risk emotionally or physically. This is one of the trickiest tightropes a parent can walk, but it’s also one of the most important ways to help your children become better equipped for the relationships they will need to negotiate throughout their lives.

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Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at  Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director for the MGH Clay Cente...

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