Dating as a teenager can be fun! It can boost self-esteem, help develop empathy, and increase maturity. But dating also has many pitfalls. How can we help our teens develop healthy dating relationships? Have you taken the time to talk about dating with your children? Have you made a stance on the issue? Thought about boundaries you might like to set? Many parents are wary about allowing their children to date or have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” but aren’t sure how to set boundaries they are comfortable with. First, let me assure you - it is up to the parents to decide where they are comfortable – and to start these conversations! And guess what? Your kids want to know where you stand.
You may be happy to hear, in my research, I have seen the value in holding children off as long as possible before allowing them to “one-on-one” date or use the boyfriend/girlfriend word. Some benefits are:
- Allowing children to be friends with a variety of people regardless of gender. When there is no “commitment”, there is no expectation of exclusivity and there is freedom in making friendships. This friendship making skill is important to lifelong success in many areas including business and marriage.
- Early coupling can lead to early sexual debut, but also could lead to early dating abuse. Dating abuse begins as a way to control someone. When a person feels a sense of “ownership” over another person because they are the person’s “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” this sense of entitlement to the person is stronger and it opens doors that otherwise wouldn’t be an option.
- Children's/teen’s hearts are broken too early and unjustly. A child who does not yet have responsibility to understand working towards goals for the future or some of the other things I’ve put on the “responsibility list” below, does not have any way of being an emotional support to another person in the way a boyfriend or girlfriend would be expected. This leads to letting each other down over something they had no way of being able to uphold in the first place.
- Talk to your teen about the reason for one-on-one dating, the reason for having a boyfriend or girlfriend. Encourage them to get to the point where they are a healthy person with goals who can be an emotional support to someone else before they are ready to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
After talking with teens (including my own) and parents and doing additional research, I suggest requiring your teen to show some levels of responsibility before allowing “coupling.” Some boundaries you might set before a boyfriend or girlfriend is allowed:
I once met with a parent who was so distraught because her 13-year-old son’s girlfriend had broken up with him for “no reason” and he was just devastated about it. She wanted advice as to how she could help him through his pain. I encouraged her to listen to him when he wanted to talk and spend time with him. As we spoke, I brought up this idea of waiting to allow boyfriends and girlfriends. I was able to show her that this pressure on a 13-year-old girl to not have other friends who were boys and to spend most of her time with this one boy was a lot to expect. Now that they were “broken up” they found it awkward to spend time together and remain friends – they even were avoiding each other in school. We talked about how it would have been different if they were never boyfriend/girlfriend. They could have hung out with each other, even liked each other. They would have had other friends who they hung out with, boys and girls. There never would be a need to break up or stop being friends and there wouldn’t be any pressure to only hang out with each other. One simple step would have eliminated this heartbreak I’m sure both kids were feeling – the parents could have said, “You’re not allowed to use the term boyfriend/girlfriend until…”
It is the parent who must decide what boundaries they will put in place and at what point they will allow their child to date, but the key for this to work is giving/helping to set boundaries in LOVE. A teen has to see the benefit for themselves in all of this. If your child is fighting you on some of these issues and isn’t seeing the benefit to waiting for things to fall into place/work towards the goals you would like to set, then you might need to have a conversation as to why they feel so strongly about having a boyfriend/girlfriend. Then try to talk out - What needs can you as parents fill instead? What needs can good friends fill? What needs can volunteering/extra-curricular activities fill? And once they are successfully dating, keep the conversation going and help them set boundaries to keep the relationship healthy!