"When will I be old enough to date?"
This is the question many parents dread. They've known it was coming, but also recognize that this means they are crossing over into a whole new world with lots of moving parts, plenty of which they have no control over.
Some reply sarcastically, "When you're 30!" Others try to be a bit more realistic and really do wrestle with the right age for their child to date, which may be different depending on the child.
A recent study published in the Journal of School Health found that dating during the teen years has been associated with helping teens learn social skills and grow in emotional intelligence. But guess what? Not dating during these years actually has benefits as well.
Researchers analyzed data from a study that followed a cohort of adolescents from Northeast Georgia from grades 6-12. Each spring, students indicated whether they had dated and reported on a number of social and emotional factors, including positive relationships with friends, at home and at school, symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts. Additionally, their teachers completed questionnaires rating each student's behavior in areas that included social skills, leadership skills and levels of depression.
The non-dating students had similar or better interpersonal skills than their more frequently dating peers. While the scores of self-reported positive relationships with friends, at home and at school did not differ between dating and non-dating peers, teachers rated the non-dating students significantly higher for social skills and leadership skills than their dating peers.
The study indicated that students who didn't date were also less likely to be depressed. Teachers' scores on the depression scale were significantly lower for the group that reported no dating. And the proportion of students who self-reported being sad or hopeless was significantly lower within this group as well.
Why would these findings be worthy of further consideration when answering the question, "When will I be old enough to date?"
Teen dating relationships today are complicated.
"Does she like me?"
"Is he cheating on me?"
"I'm scared of what he will do if I break up with him. I think he might hurt himself."
"Are his constant questions about where I am, what I am doing, who I am with and what I am wearing signs of how much he loves me?"
"Do I break up with him because he is mean or stay with him because a bad relationship is better than being in no relationship?"
These are just a sample of the thoughts teens have, and the drama that often accompanies dating relationships is a whole other discussion that cannot be disregarded.
In an endless sea of questions, some teens feel intense pressure to date and be in the "cool" crowd while others couldn't care less. Regardless of their choice, this is a time to pour into your teen the qualities that will help them navigate relationships in a healthy way, whether it is romantic or not.
The following things are important to keep in the forefront of your mind as you seek to teach your teen how to engage in relationships with others.
The prefrontal cortex, or the rational part of the brain that helps with planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control and thinking about long-term actions and their consequences, is nowhere near fully formed, and it won't be until age 25 or so. This has huge implications for teen behavior. They need your guidance for sure.
While your teen may seem super-intellectually smart, healthy relationship skills don't come naturally. They are the result of intentional teaching and modeling of behavior such as looking someone in the eyes when you speak with them, using a respectful versus disrespectful tone of voice and having high regard for one's feelings.
What your teen does in high school absolutely will follow them into adulthood and impact future relationships. Don't allow them to believe the lie that how they treat others now (or allow themselves to be treated) won't impact them later. Unfortunately, this is a harsh reality many have experienced.
Sexual activity affects teens' mental and emotional health. While the culture often pushes that having sex in the teen years is perfectly normal, plenty of young adults now believe that kind of relationship in high school created more anxiety, stress and depression for them and distracted them from truly enjoying the teen years.
They need to hear from you that their value and worth is not dependent on whether or not they are in a romantic relationship. Friendships can be rich, deep and rewarding. Teens need to know and appreciate that their uniqueness is what makes them individuals.
Experiencing a range of emotions in relationships is normal, and it helps teens build their emotional regulation muscle. Being able to discern how they are feeling and learning to handle the intensity of the emotions that come with being in any relationship with others, whether it is happiness, sadness, anger, elation, disappointment or encouragement, is beneficial.
So when will your child be old enough to date? Great question! It's definitely something you should consider with great care ahead of time. Waiting until they are 30 for sure isn't the right answer. Agreed-upon guidelines for when the time is right will be important. And it may be comforting to you and to your teen to know that in no way does it mean they are missing out if they don't date at all during the teen years.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.