I’ve Met Someone Special: Teen Dating
Kathleen A. Olson, Extension Educator — Family Relations
2011. Revised May 2017 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science.
Remember the first time you fell in love? It was all you could think about and you thought it would last forever. Combine that with what you know about all the physical and emotional changes your teen is going through, and it’s easy to see why teen relationships can become so intense.
Is Dating Good or Bad?
Dating can affect a teen in both positive and negative ways. Teens can learn from both the good and the bad. Dating can help build self-esteem, help teens discover who they are, and help build social and relationship skills. Learning how to be part of a healthy relationship is an important skill to develop. Parents should try to help teens understand that healthy relationships are based on respect, honesty, fidelity (faithfulness), good communication, and the absence of violence.
But dating can also hurt a teen’s self-esteem, reinforce stereotypical gender roles, or cause a teen to have unrealistic expectations about relationships.Teens mature physically long before they have a complete understanding of the emotions involved in an intimate relationship. This is why parents need to be prepared to help teens set guidelines on when they are ready to date and help them understand when a relationship is getting too intense or unhealthy.
When Are Teens Ready to Date?
When a teen is ready to date is a question each family must answer based on their own values.
On average, girls begin dating at 12.5 years old and boys begin dating at 13.5. However, keep in mind that dating at this age occurs in mixed sex groups, where young people spend just as much time interacting with friends as they do with their “date.”
Interest in dating usually develops in stages. Teens typically move from same sex groups, to mixed sex groups, to one-on-one relationships. Many families and professionals recommend teens wait until they are 16 years old to begin single dating. This guideline can vary by teen and by community.
Although these first dating relationships typically do not last, do not dismiss them as unimportant. When teens have the freedom to move in and out of relationships, they learn more about themselves and others. These relationships can be intense and can cause emotional upset when a break up occurs. Your child may need reassurance if this happens.
These relationships are the most important thing in the world to your teen.
Setting Rules for Teen Dating
Teen dating is not only a new experience for teens, but for parents as well. Here are some guidelines to help parents set rules about dating:
- Know who your teen is dating.
- Know where your teen is going on a date and what they plan to do. Don’t jump to conclusions about what dating means for your teen. Early dating often means spending time with a group of friends, not spending time one-on-one.
- Have guidelines for where, when, and how often your teen dates.
- Keep in mind that there is a fine line between interest and intrusion. Many teens talk with their parents about their feelings, but a parent should not press or demand that a teen tell every detail of every date. That is intrusion.
Setting Teen Curfews
Whose job is it to decide what time a teen should be home from a date: the city’s, the parent’s, or the teen’s?
The short answer is all of the above. Many cities have their own curfews for how late teens can be out. This information is typically available online. For example, in Minneapolis, depending on age, the curfew ranges from 9 p.m. to midnight (see Hennepin County: Curfew). This doesn’t mean families should not set their own rules that take into consideration what the teen is doing, who they are with, and where they are going.
When it comes to curfews, keep these points in mind:
- Teens do want limits. Boundaries are reassuring because they show you care.
- Curfews need to be determined after considering multiple things: How much sleep does your teen need? What other responsibilities does your teen have? What are typical curfews for their friends? Are these reasonable in your view?
- Let your teen be involved in making decisions about curfew and deciding on the consequences if they miss curfew.
- Let your teen know that abiding by a curfew shows responsibility and maturity. The more of these traits you see, the more lenient you may become in the future.
Spotting Teen Dating Violence
Watch for warning signs of dating violence. Far too many teens are hurt in abusive and exploitive relationships, sometimes with life-long consequences. Dating violence doesn’t start with a black eye on the first date. Abuse can be much more subtle and may be emotional or sexual, not just physical. A lot of emotional abuse may occur before the first slap, push, or grab.
Here are signs of an abusive partner:
- An abusive partner controls what their partner does and who they do it with. Abusive partners usually show a lot of jealousy or possessiveness. Parents may notice that their teen no longer hangs out with friends.
- Abusive partners have short tempers.
- Abusive partners will often belittle or put down their partner.
Teens are often confused and scared when abuse or sexual assault occurs in a relationship. They aren’t sure how to tell a parent. Parents may have to ask teens directly if they have been hurt.
If teens disclose relationship abuse, believe them. Make sure teens know that abuse or sexual assault is not their fault. Contact a local sexual assault or domestic abuse program for help.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). When To Let Your Teenager Start Dating.
Guzman, L., Ikramullah, E., Manlove, J., Peterson, K., and Scarupa, H.J. (2009). Telling it like it is: Teen perspectives on romantic relationships. (Publication #2009-44). Washington, D.C.: Child Trends.
Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt Teens — American Psychological Association — This poster-style brochure on teen dating violence provides information and resources for victims, aggressors, and friends. It includes discussion of issues particular to disabled youth, same-sex relationships, and cultural beliefs.
loveisrespect — This website strives to be a safe, inclusive space for young people to access information and get help in an environment that is designed specifically for them. Free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365.
Featured Topics: Parents — The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — This webpage has some tips and scripts to help parents have a conversation with their 18-year kids about relationships, love, sex, and birth control.