When it comes to navigating the unpredictable terrain of teenagers and dating most parents feel lost and ill equipped, just like their teens. In 2012, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that two-thirds of teens and young adults have had oral sex. A similar number of teens have had vaginal intercourse. There is also the hidden underside of teen dating—dating abuse and violence; one out of ten teenagers report physical abuse in their dating relationships.
This reality is enough to throw parents into a state of panic. So how do we, as parents, guide our teens (and ourselves!) through the murky landscape of teen dating? Here’s one place to start: show them you love them. A study from Advocates for Youth concluded that adolescents who reported feeling connected to parents and family were more likely than other teens to wait longer to have sex. Also, teens whose parents made consistent efforts to get to know their friends and to keep track of their whereabouts reported fewer sexual partners, fewer coital acts, and more use of contraceptives.
There’s no question about it, your child’s first date is a milestone worthy of excitement and anticipation. But what dating becomes has a lot to do with the kind of significance that we attach to it. Some see dating as a status symbol—access to an elite and sought-after commodity. However, the goal of dating should be to discover what we seek in a relationship—and to refine our understanding of our self as we learn about another. In the beginning stages of the dating process, it’s quite typical for kids to be unsure about what they expect to happen on a date. So it makes sense that your kids’ first date may be centered on an event such as a dance or concert or on creating a certain atmosphere where they feel in their element. Their goal may be, at this early stage, to simply accomplish this milestone rather than to explore the nuances of a relationship.
So how can parents guide their children through this challenging process? One important way is to listen when your kids tell you about the qualities they like in the person they date—their values, so to speak. If you have established yourself as a thoughtful and sympathetic confidante, your opinion will matter to your teens. On the other hand, if you make it clear to your teens that no one is good enough for them, you may not get to hear what they feel and think. Try to suppress your own preferences (who and what you envisioned for that first date) and tune in to the things your son or daughter appreciates about that person and the plans they have made.
The bottom line: stay involved! This doesn’t mean you should morph into Boot Camp Mom or Prison Ward Dad by barking orders as your child leaves the house. Resist the urge to plant that surveillance camera in the family car! But do let your teen know that his or her dating life is of genuine concern to you. Make sure you know what your teen’s boundaries are—for example, what exactly counts as sex? Voice your values and ask your teen to voice his or hers. Stay vocal. Remember, if your teen trusts and respects the source, they are more likely to heed your wisdom. You may not be able to sit between them at the Cineplex or barricade the doors to the bedrooms when they’re at home after school and you’re still at work, but you can make sure they’ve thought about what they’re doing while they’re there.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.