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Boyfriends, Girlfriends: What Parents Need to Know about Teenage Dating

by Anita Gurian, PhD

two teens about to hold hands

A teen's first romantic entanglement likely conjures a mixture of worry and nostalgia for parents, as they remember their own early encounters with love and sex. Some things about the dating world have changed drastically in the intervening years, while others haven't changed a bit.

One thing that's remained true is that adolescent romantic relationships can have long-term effects on self esteem and shape lasting personal values about romance, intimate relationships and sexuality—which is why it's important to talk with your teen about the differences between a healthy romantic relationship, and an unhealthy one.

When should kids begin dating?

Depends on who you ask. According to most child psychology experts, age matters. They believe that pre-teen girls and boys should participate in supervised group activities such as school dances, sports events, trips to the mall or the movies, or going out to eat. One-on-one dating is appropriate for older teens. According to polls, most parents feel that until age 16 kids should only be involved in group activities, with some saying that high school is the dating cut-off point. Other parents, however, say kids as young as 10 or 11 are going on one-on-one dates. Parents should exercise their best judgment in deciding what’s right for their child, based on their own sense of his or her maturity, not the media or what other parents might let their kids do.

Dating means different things at different ages

Most teenagers are interested in dating, some earlier than others. Pre-teens (roughly nine through 12 years) may say they have a boy or girlfriend, but usually they go out in groups and spend individual time only on the phone, or more likely instant messaging or text messaging. Developing crushes is fairly common during this time and is part of beginning to learn how to interact with the opposite sex.
A recent trend among pre-teens, however, has caused concern to parents and professionals. Physical and behavioral changes that would have formerly been typical of adolescents are now common among 8- to 12-year-olds. Pre-teens are acting more like teenagers; they listen to sexually charged pop music, play mature-rated video games, and spend time on Facebook. More pre-teen girls are wearing makeup and clothing typical of older girls. Some have been going on "dates."

Spending time in mixed gender groups generally leads to twosomes as kids get older. Teens fall in love often and intensely. For many teens, some earlier than others, romantic relationships become the center of their lives. By ages 15 to 19 three quarters  of teens report having had a relationship, dated, or "hooked up" with someone (2007 report by the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence, based at Cornell University). Many  report spending more time with their romantic partner than with friends and family. It's up to parents to try and moderate teens' behavior if a relationship is becoming all-consuming.

Healthy relationships bring benefits

The teen years are a time of identity formation, and dating can be an integral part of developing a healthy sense of self. In the early teen years, however, most kids don't quite know how to date.  Through practice, they learn the give-and-take of relationships and test out various ways of relating to others.

As teens become more experienced and mature, they can reap many benefits from becoming involved in relationships. They learn about different habits of the opposite sex, practice their communication and social skills, and become involved in new interests and hobbies.

Through relationships they learn how their decisions affect others; they develop emotionally as they figure out who they are and what their values are. Interpersonal skills such as such as the ability to negotiate and empathize, and learning to apologize and forgive, are enhanced as teens give and receive emotional support through their involvement.

The downsides of dating

Teenage dating also carries risks and can become hurtful. More than half of American teens know friends who have experienced some sort of dating abuse, while nearly three in four say that physical dating violence is a serious concern for their age group, according to a study conducted in 2006 by Teenage Research Unlimited in partnership with Liz Claiborne Inc. The study exposes alarming patterns of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse among teens in dating relationships. Teens are especially vulnerable because both perpetrators and victims of abuse don’t always know what is and isn't "normal" and appropriate in a healthy, loving relationship.

Teens surveyed ranged in age from 13 to 18 and extended across all ethnic groups, cities, and suburbs. One in three teens reported knowing a friend who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked, or physically hurt by their partner, while nearly one in five girls admit they have been in a relationship in which their boyfriend had threatened physical abuse if she broke up with him. Twenty-six percent of girls said they have been in a relationship in which they endured repeated verbal abuse by their partner, and 13 percent reported enduring repeated physical abuse. Some 80 percent of teens say they regard verbal abuse as a "serious issue" for their age group. Nearly 73 percent said they would turn to a friend for help if they were involved in an abusive relationship, but only 33 percent of those who have actually been in or known of an abusive relationship said they have told anyone about it.

A 2007 companion survey revealed that an alarming number of teens in dating relationships are being controlled, threatened, and humiliated using cell phones and the Internet. (For more information, see a recent article on cyberbullying.) Seventy-one percent of teens said boyfriends or girlfriends spreading rumors about them via cell phones and social networking sites is a serious problem among their age group. Sixty-eight percent of teens say boyfriends or girlfriends sharing private or embarrassing pictures or videos on cell phones and computers is also widespread.

One in four teens in a relationship (25 percent) say they have been called names, harassed, or put down by their partner through cell phones and texting. One in five teens in a relationship (22 percent) have been asked to engage in sex via cell phones or the Internet.

In cases in which a romantic partner is attempting to control a girlfriend or boyfriend, cell phone calls and texting mean constant access, day and night. Nearly one in four teens in a relationship (24 percent) communicated with their partner via cell phone or texting hourly between midnight and 5 a.m. One in three teens (30 percent) say their romantic partner sends text messages 10, 20, even 30 times an hour inquiring where they are, what they're doing, or who they're with.

In some communities, school-based programs have been organized in an effort to change attitudes and help teens build skills in conflict management, negotiation, problem solving and anger management.

The surveys also revealed that parents are often unaware that their teens are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Parents can help combat the problem by talking with their teens early and often about what is and isn't appropriate behavior.

How parents can help promote healthy relationships

  • By the time a child reaches the preteen years parents should have had the basic sex talk, and as kids get older it should be an ongoing rather than a one-time conversation. Children hear different things about sex from their friends and the media, so make sure they know the facts.
  • Conversations should not be solely about the mechanics of sex, but should also include feelings. Teens need to be aware that relationships should be based on the trust, mutual respect, and genuine intimacy that develop over time. Parents need to be clear about their values and what they expect from their children.
  • One of the most powerful teaching tools parents have to convey their values to their children is their own relationship. Children will learn to be tender, compassionate and respectful of their partners when they see their parents model these behaviors.
  • Be alert to signs of an abusive relationship such as controlling behavior, belittling or verbally putting down a person, isolating her from friends, having a short temper, showing jealousy or possessiveness, pushing or slapping.
  • As it becomes harder to shield kids completely from online pornography, parents may want to address this, emphasizing that just as movies and TV aren't the same as real life, these depictions of sex are not realistic and can promote unhealthy attitudes.
  • Parents should be available and supportive so their children are not driven to rely solely on others for support. At the same time keep in mind that adolescents are trying to become less dependent on their parents and will want some degree of privacy. It's a fine line.
  • Basic rules such as curfews should be established. Know who your teen is dating, where they're going, what they plan to do, and when they'll be home.
  • Set up rules about computer use and online safety. It's not unreasonable to monitor kids' activities online (learn more in a recent article on cyberbullying).
  • Encourage kids to invite friends home, but set ground rules about entertaining when parents aren't present.
  • Answer questions directly and honestly as they come up. Your willingness to be open and truthful sets the standard.
  • Don't hesitate to let your teen know how you feel and what you expect. Be willing to listen and not judge.
  • Be aware of how your children use technology. Make sure they know they should come to a parent or other trusted adult if they feel threatened or if someone spreads photos or rumors about them online.
  • Teach teens to trust their judgment and avoid unwanted sexual advances by stating a response such as "No" clearly and firmly.
  • When appropriate, encourage your teen to talk privately with his or her own physician.

Sources

Teen Dating Abuse Survey, 2006, Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) for Liz Claiborne Inc.

Technology & Teen Dating Abuse Survey 2007, Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) for Liz Claiborne Inc.

Updated, February 2011.