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Preparing Your Teens for Dating

By Timothy S. Killian, PhD
University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

You don't have to be a social scientist to know that teenagers are nearly obsessed with romantic relationships. Sullen and disinterested teens become animated and move to the edge of their seats when discussions turn to the latest gossip about school romance. Also, teenagers actively attempt to keep parents at arm's length when it comes to romance. This results in stress and frustration for parents. In spite of teenagers' efforts to keep parents out of their love lives, there are some important things parents can do to help their adolescent children – and themselves – through this difficult time.

First, parents should recognize that this is a normative transition for their teenage children. National estimates suggest that only slightly more than 25 percent of 12-year-olds in the United States recently had a romantic relationship. However, 68 percent of 18-year-old boys and 76 percent of 18-year-old girls had been involved in romantic relationships.

Commonly, adults focus on negative outcomes associated with dating. For many adolescents, however, dating is a positive influence in their lives. It provides a context for them to sort out who they are and what kind of person they want to be around or not be around for the rest of their lives. Dating helps teenagers to develop interpersonal competencies and increases their sense of self-confidence.

Second, parents can begin preparing their teenagers for dating early in life. In fact, parents can begin preparing their children for the dating scene while their children are still infants. That may seem odd, but think about it like this: For the 12 years prior to becoming a teenager, children are learning what normal is. If they grow up in a family in which it is normal to manipulate feelings, yell at other people, belittle others, or even use physical violence, they are at a significantly increased risk for being in abusive and unhealthy relationships. A national study looked at adolescents who were at least 16 years old and had been in a romantic relationship. Of those, 14.3 percent had been insulted in public, 22 percent had been sworn at, nearly 4 percent had been threatened with violence, and 9 percent had been pushed or shoved by a romantic partner. People often wonder why others "put up" with those kinds of behaviors. The full answer to that question is complex, but part of the answer for many is that they "put up" with those kinds of behaviors because they believe they are normal and, more often than not, they learned about normal from their parents.

Children with parents who don't tolerate physical violence or verbal abuse and who treat each other with caring and respect learn that abusive behaviors are not normal. It greatly increases the odds that their teenagers won't tolerate abusive or manipulative behaviors from romantic partners.

Third, parents should be aware that peers also influence children's beliefs about what is considered normal in dating. Children are likely to observe controlling behaviors among their romantically involved friends, such as constant text messaging or intense jealousy. Teenagers are likely to observe unhealthy gender stereotypes or taunts based on sexual orientation. Parents who have strong relationships with their teenagers based on years of respect and openness will be able to discuss the negative consequences of controlling behaviors and discriminatory attitudes toward others. Those discussions lead to critical thinking skills that teenagers use to filter their observations of peers' behaviors and attitudes. More importantly, however, it gives teenagers the freedom to break away from harmful and limiting stereotypes and to explore and find their own romantic relationships that are fulfilling and meaningful.

Parents' concerns associated with teen dating are many. They worry that their children will be involved in abusive and unhealthy relationships, that their teenagers may be exposed to a sexually transmitted infection, or that their teenage son or daughter may have a child earlier than planned. Unfortunately, we can't force teens to live in a bubble. However, by recognizing that this a normal life transition, providing teenagers with a healthy sense of what is normal, and giving them the self-confidence that comes from independent and critical thinking, problems associated with teen dating might be greatly reduced.

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