Talking to Teens about Dating

One goal of raising children is to help them become increasingly responsible and independent as they age, and one of those developmental milestones on the path to independence is dating. Many parents and educators tend to shy away from talking about dating with youth. While we don’t think twice about discussing other independent living skills, such as budgeting or cooking, many adults avoid dating conversations, likely because it feels uncomfortable. Despite the awkwardness, dating is an important topic to discuss with youth. Dating is not just an annoying distraction in your teen’s life; it actually helps young people learn to get along with others, communicate, negotiate, make decisions, and learn to be assertive.

There is a fine line in what information a teen is willing to hear from adults about their love life. For example, if your teen is having a problem with their significant other, they do not want to hear you try to push a specific solution or criticize their partner. But there is still a lot of important information about dating you should share with your teen, especially before they begin dating, and if you have the right attitude and message, your teen will likely be open to hearing it.

Here are some ideas:

Engage in Open Conversations. Talking about relationships in regular, everyday conversations lets you and your child discuss your family values when it comes to friendship, family, and love. Teaching your teen that values are important actually encourages your teen to look for partners with similar values to them. You can reinforce your values that concern dating and relationships by modeling them with your spouse or significant other and discussing them with teens, especially when you’re able to use examples from pop culture.

Prepare them to Say No. Dating can place new pressure on your child, and when humans are under pressure, we don’t always make the best decisions. When teens are put on the spot, they have a split second to figure out what to do, and while teens generally want to make the right choice, they often want to avoid awkwardness even more. If you truly want your teens to say no to risky behaviors such as drugs or sex, you have to do more than give them the intellectual reasons for it. You need to help your teen develop a plan. Sit down with your teen and think of some of the awkward situations that your teen might face in a dating scenario, and then, come up with responses that allow your teen to make the right choice, but in a way that will not alienate or judge his/her partner. If you want more information, please read our previous blog Helping Teens Be Prepared to Say No.

Explain that Love Takes Time. Teens often wonder if they are really in love. The emotions that come with dating are strong and intense, which makes it easy to confuse infatuation with love. Let your teen know that mature love grows stronger with time. The more you get to know each other, the stronger the feelings can become. Love means wanting the best for the other person. Explain to your teen that if they are trying to find ways to “fix” their partner’s flaws or change them, wanting to control them or their decisions, or if they need constant reassurance from that person, they are more likely infatuated than in love. Remind your teen that finding mature love usually takes more than one try, it takes time to develop, and it’s easier to find as everyone matures.

Discuss Breakups. Many relationships just don’t work. Let your teen know that it can be just as important to know when it’s time to move on as it is to be in a relationship. Be sure to tell your teen that breaking up doesn’t mean they are a failure; it just means that they weren’t the right match and, now, they have more information to find a better match next time. Remind your teen that they have many years ahead to enjoy romance and dating, so when a relationship doesn’t work, chalk it up to a learning experience. It might hurt, but they can get through it and be better on the other side. Note that it’s important to tell your teen this information before they date. They are not usually receptive to hearing this message while in the middle of a break-up.

Establish Rules. When your son/daughter wants to start dating, you need to immediately set down the rules. Be sure to consider all of the issues related to dating and decide what rules you want to implement. Again, it’s important to set these rules before they go on any dates. It is much easier to stick to the rules for you and your teen if you don’t have to negotiate them on the spot in front of their ‘friend’. Keep in mind that writing down the rules is more effective than just stating them once or twice. It’s a great idea to propose some rules, but allow your teen some negotiation in the process. Below are some examples of rules you might want to require:

  • I will introduce my date to my parents before I will be able to go out alone on a date with him/her. I understand that I may go out on group dates without introductions.
  • I will not date anyone more 2 years older than me or anyone less than 2 years younger than me.
  • I will never be behind closed doors with my date in our home or his/her home.
  • I am allowed to go on ___ dates per week, this includes visiting at each other’s homes but not group or school outings.
  • I will be home, and my date will be gone, by my curfew of ____.
  • I will tell my parents where I am going to be and with whom for the entire time I am gone.
  • I will require my date to be respectful of me and my family.
  • My responsibilities come first. I will keep up with _________ (e.g. homework/grades, chores, sports, etc.) or possibly lose my dating privileges.

Discuss Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships. In addition to laying down the rules for dating, parents should also take time to discuss dating abuse with their teen. Studies show that 1 in 3 American teenagers have experienced an abusive dating relationship, so it’s vital that parents discuss this issue with their teens. When teens hear “dating abuse,” they may think the term is limited to severe violence, such as rape or beatings. It’s up to the adults in their lives to let them know that dating abuse includes:

  • insults or put-downs in social media, in front of friends, or in private;
  • verbal or written threats of violence or of sharing private information;
  • monitoring a partner’s actions (using texts to find out where they are or requiring they share their account passwords); and
  • isolating a partner from their friends or family.

Dating abuse is really a pattern of behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Parents should talk to their teens about what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. Someone new to dating might not realize that the way their boyfriend or girlfriend is treating them is not appropriate unless they are given information ahead of time. For more information, read our previous blog Educating Teens about Healthy Dating Relationships.

Final Thoughts…

Dating is a really exciting and important part of growing up. Our role is to prepare youth for this experience with as much information ahead of time as possible. Through conversations and role modeling, teens should know their family’s values, how to be assertive, signs of dating abuse, and dating rules. In addition, once teens start dating, parents should also have conversations about sexual consent. You can learn more in our previous blog, Discussing Sexual Consent for Teens.

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