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Talking to Your Teenagers About Dating

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I remember vividly getting my parents' permission to go on a first teen date. I had a massive crush on a girl named Kristy in one of my classes and a dance was coming up. I was just two weeks away from 16, and our established family rule was that we didn't date before 16. But I was persistent enough that my parents gave in. I asked her out and then asked a friend who also had a date to the dance to drive us.

I certainly had unrealistic expectations about the date and how it would go, and I was totally disappointed. We had nothing to talk about and we both got tired of dancing with just one person all evening. When another guy came and asked her to dance and she did, I was devastated. Candidly, I couldn't wait to get the evening over.

When I went home and talked to my parents about the date, they were very generous not to play the "I told you so" card. But I learned on my own that I wasn't really ready to single date at that stage of life, and starting hanging out with guy friends and girl friends in groups (which was a lot more fun) for another year or so.

We all know that teenagers' emotions can be fragile. And fathers usually can see the danger in a situation before their teenagers are even aware. Especially with teenage daughters, dads also tend to be protective—after all, we were all teenage boys once! So how can a dad talk about dating with his teenager to help them make good choices and avoid dangerous or emotionally charged situations before they are mature enough to handle them?

Start talking early. If you are having your first conversation about dating and relationships with your teen after age 13, you are probably too late. Talking at the tween stage is when it should start. Help them look forward to dating, but in the right context. Help them look past the romantic notions they get from tween television, video games and conversations. Share with your teens the complexities of dating relationships and ways to keep appropriate boundaries with members of the opposite sex.

Help establish realistic expectations. We all know that teens and pre-teens will experience the occasional crush. It is a fact of growing up. But somehow, both boys and girls tend to romanticize in their fantasies about dating. The real truth is that teen friendships are built a step at a time and that magical date often ends up being something less than they imagine. A dose of reality can help them see things as they really are, and will avoid some serious disappointments.

Set an example of respectful relationships. Teach them to treat members of the opposite sex by treating your partner and other women well and respectfully. Have intelligent and respectful conversations in their presence. Don't tease your partner or belittle her in front of the kids, even if she seems to welcome it. Show your partner affection without getting too mushy. And when you have a disagreement, deal with it maturely and not in anger. You will set a standard of acceptable behavior for your teen based on your relationships with women.

Teach the implications of sexual activity. A recent poll suggested that well over half of all teens have had a sexual relationship before they graduate from high school. So assuming that your child has not had sex or is not open to a sexual relationship may be a false assumption. Talk to them about the risks of sexual activity at a young age. Help them see that sex is not just physical; it is also laden with emotion. Not only is there a risk of disease and unwanted pregnancy, but sex changes a relationship permanently. Often, getting involved sexually will result in feelings of possessiveness which hinder other relationships. Help them develop planned responses to unwanted advances so in the heat of passion, they will be ready.

Establish boundaries. Discussing in advance dating limits is really helpful. I mentioned that in our family growing up, and for our children as well, we set an age limit of 16 for dating. Our kids did a lot of "hanging out" with mixed gender groups before and after 16, but single dates waited until then. We chose 16 because we had seen several studies that suggested that if kids waited until 16 to pair off, they were far less likely to have sex, marry and drop out of school than they were if dating started earlier.

Other boundaries that your family should set include:

  • Curfews. Our family's curfews got later as kids got older, and we occasionally let them stay out later for a special prom or other activity, but we always had a set time to be home.

  • Supervision. We always insisted on our dating teens being in places where they were supervised or in the presence of others. If they were at a date's home, they stayed in rooms where others were present. And we always talked to at least one parent of the dating partner to make sure we understood each other's parameters.

  • Age differences. We were always concerned about our children dating someone older or younger than they were. So we set rules that (a) no more than a two year age difference during their teenage years and (b) no dating a college aged young man or woman while they were still in high school.

  • In-between dates. We also set a rule that before age 18, the kids could not go out with the same person twice in a row without another date in between. The idea was to prevent them pairing off too early. That seemed to work well. Even our daughters liked it because if a particular young man wanted to go out again with them, they had to find them another dating partner in between, and that led to some really fun dates.

As in any other important issue in the teenage years, keeping the lines of communication open and keeping expectations clear make a big difference in how parents and teens navigate these critical years.

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