Helping your teen navigate through dating.
It’s enough to get parents’ palms sweating….the thought of their teenager dipping a toe into the dating waters. But as nerve-racking as it is for parents to experience this part of adolescence with their children, it is a natural step in a young adult’s development and, say area professionals, provides an excellent opportunity to open communication and build trust as parents and teens navigate together.
Let the Dating Begin
There is no set perfect age for adolescents to begin dating – but parents can think of middle school dances as a sort of “practice run” says Claudia Arthrell, director of professional services at Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services. Such school-organized, chaperoned dances are really an opportunity for kids to talk to the opposite sex without having to call it a date.
Nationally, the average age that children start dating is between 14-15 years old. But parents should not be concerned that their children are pairing off too early, says Arthrell, noting that most relationships for youngsters aged 12-15 last less than two months. More serious relationships begin occurring around age 16, she cites, when the average length of a relationship hovers at around two years.
Young people often begin with group dates to places such as the movies or a friend’s home. Such settings provide an element of safety and security for adolescents not yet comfortable with one-on-one communication. Just because parents may be more familiar with one-on-one dates from their early youth doesn’t mean it’s the norm now, Arthrell says. But if your child is looking to spend time with only one special someone, “be interested in it, talk about it, find out what it’s about,” she suggests.
In the end, when your teen is ready for dating is based on your own assessment. Age is not as important as the maturity and responsibility of your child, Arthrell says. “If you know your child and there is trust, openness and communication, you don’t have fears, and hitting benchmarks [like dating] is not scary.”
The Key is Positive Communication
Parents’ number one difficulty with adolescents is communicating effectively, say area experts. And the biggest mistake parents make is focusing on the negative, which can be disastrous in preparing your child for healthy dating relationships.
“You shut the door on any future conversations and push them away,” Arthrell cautions.
The key for successful communication with your teen is “active listening” says Lauren Alvarez, certified parent instructor with Jenks’ Parents as Teachers program, who also teaches “Active Parenting” classes offered through Family & Children’s Services. Allow the conversation to take its full course without jumping in the middle, she says, and only afterwards offer advice by saying something like, “I have some ideas to share with you.” This approach comes from a place of partnership instead of antagonism, she explains.
“Everyone wants their freedom,” says Jenks sophomore Austin G., noting parents who use a lot of “you cannot” shut kids down.
Arthrell also suggests complimenting children on any strengths you see them exhibiting, even if they are in the midst of a struggle like a breakup. You can add to your child’s confidence in a relationship by pointing out those things you see as bonuses, such as a boyfriend’s thoughtfulness or inclusive thinking. By doing so, says Arthrell, you are highlighting those values important to your family.
For those parents who might need a little work in the communication department themselves, Arthrell suggests partaking in a “Forever For Real” class offered by Family & Children’s Services. These classes provide skill sets for navigating adult relationships that parents can impart to their teens.
“Know and trust your kids,” advises Arthrell, who says that parents who have thus far worked on building a solid foundation with their children will benefit greatly. “We’re still the best role models.”
But What About MY Dating History?
Cue the palm sweat again…what happens when your teen confronts you with questions about your own dating past?
“You don’t have to tell your own story!” assures Alvarez. Instead, she says, if you are uncomfortable talking about yourself, get the gist of what your child is asking and try to figure out why. For example, if your child asks about your sexual past, she might be beginning to explore her own feelings on the subject. Be wary of responding with “that’s not your business,” she warns, which shuts the door on a valuable opportunity for conversation. It may also present the perfect opener for a discussion, or refresher, on the “birds and the bees.”
Arthrell also suggests the tactic of depersonalizing a story or “making it about someone else” such as a “college friend.” This tool is a great way to provide information and teach about situations and consequences without revealing personal information a parent may find uncomfortable.
“There are some secrets we can’t hide,” Alvarez notes. And indeed, some parts of a parent’s dating past are not easily disguised or de-personalized. Included in that category are life events such as teen pregnancy or a public arrest record. In instances where de-personalizing is not an option, it may not be easy but Alvarez suggests having an honest conversation that presents the realities of the situation and opens up the opportunity for parents to speak about consequences.
Alvarez also recommends parents model good behavior in their current personal lives. This is particularly tricky for divorced and dating parents, she adds. As a divorced mother of two adolescent boys herself, Alvarez shared, “I dated my [now] husband for a full year before exposing my boys to him.” It is awkward for kids, she acknowledges, and parents need to be willing to talk about what their children are experiencing in these situations as well.
Waiting at the Door with a Shotgun
While local experts don’t suggest emulating the image of sitting on your front porch cleaning your gun when your teen’s date arrives, it’s a great idea to know a bit about who your child is going out with.
“It’s just like I don’t let my kids sleep at a friend’s house unless I know the family,” Alvarez says.
Even though your youngster may not be too keen on going through the time-honored ritual of meeting the parents, it helps if you are a “real person” before the date, Arthrell says. That way, even though you are not physically on the date, the date knows you care about your child’s well being and you have a face and a voice.
So leave the gun locked safely away, as well as any menacing looks, but insisting on some hard and fast rules – such as knowing the name of your child’s date and where they will be going – is a good practice. Parents of a younger teen may even think of walking their child to the date’s door to introduce themselves to the other teen’s parents.
In the Good Old Days…
It’s just human nature to romanticize the past, particularly our own youth. “When I was a teenager” is a familiar refrain echoed by parents and grandparents alike, often followed by a chorus of eye rolls from our children.
Local experts say that in teen dating trends, there are both similarities and differences between how parents and grandparents experienced dating culture and today’s teens’ own experiences. Chief among the differences, notes Arthrell, is that previous generations probably felt a lot more pressure to go on one-on-one dates than do today’s teens. Also bolstering the modern trend toward group dates, she said, are parents and schools that tend to be more proactive in creating events and parties for teens. “The value of good social connectivity is more understood now,” she adds.
The reality of technology such as texting and Facebook means that it is easier today to form strong bonds more quickly. The ubiquity of mature content on the Internet, TV and in movies can also have a numbing effect on teens, Alvarez warns, making youngsters feel that certain things are “ok” or “not a big deal,” when in reality, the mature activity they are seeing is not ok, and may be outside of the values of a young person’s family.
But at it’s core, the feelings teen experience today are the same as those teens felt 35 or 50 years ago, assures Alvarez. She believes the maturity level of today’s young adults is also on par with the maturity levels of their parents and grandparents at the same age.
“They are still nervous, terrified, excited,” Alvarez says.
Mom, I’m in LOVE!
It can come on as an increasing swell or a full-blown tsunami – falling in love is just about as intense as it gets for a teen, even if adults around them characterize these feelings as “puppy love.” But both Arthrell and Alvarez are adamant that parents’ response to their child’s first protestations of love not belittle or downplay very real emotions.
“They are honestly in chemical love, with chemicals coursing through their body to make them feel that way,” Alvarez says.
Instead, use this as another opportunity to learn about what these feelings mean to your child. Arthrell suggests asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions such as, “What does this mean to you?” and “How does this feeling affect you during the day?” Don’t discredit or undermine your children’s responses, even if they do have a “Disney” feel to them, she says. Parents who listen closely may even pick up some early warning signs in the relationship of emotions that your teen feels make sexual activity “ok.”
It’s Part of Growing Up
Whether parents feel as if they are stumbling and fumbling into the world of adolescent dating, or fancy themselves well-equipped to handle the changes in the lives of their daughters and sons, area experts agree that keeping the lines of communication open is paramount. It is a means not only of staying informed about your child’s friends and whereabouts, but also a way to continue to help shape morals and values during the crucial period of adolescent development. Though kids might be loathe to admit it – they do actually take stock in what their parents think.
To Learn More Family & Children’s Services of Tulsa offers these and other classes for parents:
“Forever For Real” adult relationship classes
“Active Parenting” classes for parents of children of different age groups
For more information, visit www.fcsok.org or call 918.587.9471.