“What does that mean?” I inquired.
“Well,” she said, taking a deep breath, “it means I have a boyfriend and we are ‘going out.’”
“Oh, and where are you going, I asked?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think we are going anywhere.”
Two weeks later she came home from school and confessed that having a boyfriend was no fun at all. He just wanted to follow her around school and even hold her hand. Enough of this foolishness.
I was eager to agree.
Putting the brakes on preteen dating is something virtually every expert endorses. Single dating before age 16 is developmentally inappropriate as dating early has the real potential to lead to depression and lower self-esteem in early adulthood. Why? Because young teenagers are highly susceptible to peer pressure, especially in the eighth and ninth grade.
Often this pressure translates into a young teen participating in behavior simply because she does not have the confidence to say “No.” As the teenager ages, a firmer identity is developed and the older teen (even by 16) is much more likely to participate in behavior of her own choosing, not because she feels pressure by her peers.
Another complication of dating too young involves the psychological trauma that takes place if the young teen begins having sexual intercourse before identity is firmly established. Such involvement often results in identity confusion and thus inhibits emotional development.
What is a parent to do? Keep in mind the following three principles as you deal openly and honestly with your teen who is facing this issue:
1. Clearly communicate. This means listening carefully to what your child is saying to you. Realize that your opinion is still very important to your young teen. Although she may act like you are clueless, emotionally a young teen is still more influenced by your thoughts and feelings than her peers.
2. Clearly define dating. Certainly there is nothing wrong with middle school teens participating in a school dance, parents taking a group of teens to a movie, or having a pizza party for a mixed group in your home. Such activities are healthy in the sense that they provide opportunities to interact with the opposite sex in safe conditions without feeling the pressure involved in being alone on a single date.
3. Clearly set boundaries. If your child pleads with you to begin single dating before age 16, feel OK about saying “No, you’re not ready for that yet. Some day you will be, but not yet. You’re not supposed to drive. You’re not supposed to drink alcohol. There are a lot of things you are not ready to do until you are older. Dating is one of those things.”
My experience as a parent and a college professor tells me that following these clear guidelines may cause some tension with your young teen, but the overwhelming majority of college coeds said they appreciated it when parents clearly gave guidance on this important issue.