Power Struggles

Teen Dating 101

How to set boundaries, establish trust—and keep them talking

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Photograph by Don Diaz

So, your teen wants to start dating? Before you hit the panic button, heed the advice of clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Kastner, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, and author of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens. We asked Kastner for the answers you need to know.

What are the best strategies for opening up a dialogue about dating?

I call it the “swirl in” technique. Start on the outside of the topic of socializing, and hunt and peck. Who’s in the group going to X’s house Friday night? What movies do guys want to see? To keep it from being an interrogation—leading to shut down—it’s good to just make it chit-chat in an effort to get the teen interested in a few topics so that they enjoy sharing. By accident, you may hear some names that crop up more and more.

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To get any personal info on your teen’s dating, it’s usually helpful to have some “grapevine” info to start with, like, “I heard that you and Sarah were going out … could you tell me about this? I’d rather hear the real scoop from you than have to rely on gossip.” But don’t expect a big download. Privacy is the rule—so don’t feel bad. Just because another mom has a Chatty Cathy, that doesn’t mean your Clam-up Kid is “less close” to you. All we can do is try to strike up conversations that may give us some clues over time. If we stay respectful and keep sniffing around the perimeter of their social worlds, we’ll usually learn something of their romantic world.

What does dating mean to teens now? What are the patterns and trends?

The term “dating” is hardly used anymore. Younger teens usually pursue their romantic interests via texts and third parties who scout out whether the other party is interested. Younger teens may “go out” (meaning: explore the idea of being a “couple”) and break up and never even have a face-to-face conversation. Teens, especially those in high school and college, may refer to “hooking up,” and that term can include anything from kissing at a party to sexual intercourse.

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