Teen Dating 101

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.

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 trail blazers.

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.

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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

relationship. Parents should get help from friends and relatives to "circle the wagons" to protect their teen. Seeking professional help is recommended.

How should parents handle breakups?

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 and soothing.

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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 intelligence" quotient.

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