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.
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.
One of the teen trends
is to socialize in groups. Teens deny that any coupling up is occurring so that
teens can maximize their independence. Parents allow more freedom when they
don't think dating or sexual interests are part of the mix. This is where the
parent network can really come in handy. Parents should tune into the
grapevine: Your teen may not be talking, but usually one of them is.
What hasn't changed
over the decades is that sexual and romantic interests start at or before
puberty. Temperament plays a big role in determining whether someone couples up
in middle school or waits until their 20s. Shy kids often postpone dating
because of their anxiety and avoidance, and the bold risk-takers will be the
How can parents
balance their need for information with their child'sdesire forprivacy and independence?
It's all about mutual
interests: Parents need information, and the teens need freedom. Parents should
feel entitled to know what I call the Big 5: Where are you going? Who are
you going with? What is the transportation plan? Do you promise to call me if the
plan changes? Do we agree on the curfew? If the teen blows it on following
through, she or he has restricted freedom.
What should parents do
if they suspect their child is in an abusive relationship?
If parents have
information about their teen experiencing relationship violence (e.g., pushing,
hitting, slapping or what is called "relational aggression," like threats and
humiliation), they should take firm action to end the
should get help from friends and relatives to "circle the wagons" to protect
their teen. Seeking professional help is recommended.
How should parents
Parents should offer
empathy and compassion, and go light on the words of wisdom in an effort to
make the teen less miserable. Comments like, "There are more fish in the sea,"
"You are young—you will have other loves in your life," are actually
dismissive, not reassuring. A broken heart (remember Romeo and Juliet were 14)
can hurt as much, or more, than love at older ages. Be there for support, distraction
What should parents
know about the benefits of dating?
Being in a couple
means talking, listening, accommodating, sharing feelings, empathy,
negotiating and learning coping skills for dealing with all kinds of negative
emotions (e.g., disappointment, jealousy, vulnerability, anxiety, sacrifice). If
parents weren't so worried about sex and a potential slump in grades, they'd
realize that dating can produce a huge enhancement to their teen's "emotional