Significant dating most commonly begins in late adolescence, ages 15 - 18, during the high school years. By "significant" I mean when young people want to experience a continuing relationship that involves more interest and caring than the casual socializing or friendship they have known before. They want to pair up, at least for a while, to experience what a more serious involvement is like.
At this juncture, it can be helpful if parents can provide some guidelines for evaluating the "goodness" of a relationship. To what degree is it constructed and conducted so that it works well and not badly for the young people involved? What should they expect in a relationship, and what should they not want? Remember, in most cases, this relationship education is not addressed in the academic classes that they take in school. It is taught by life experience. I believe parents have a role in helping their son or daughter know how to evaluate this experience.
Parents can begin by describing three components of a serious relationship: Attraction, Enjoyment, and Respect. Attraction is how the relationship gets started. Typically it is based on appearance and personality that motivates wanting to spend some time together. Enjoyment is what keeps the relationship going. Typically it is based on companionship and commonality that allow them to share experience together. Respect is how the relationship is conducted in a sensitive manner. Typically it is based on keeping treatment of each other within limits that feel comfortable and safe for them both.
Parents can declare: no matter how much attraction and enjoyment there is, if how young people treat each other lacks respect for one or both of them, then what they have is not a good relationship. For sure, parents need to tell their son or daughter that any kind of violence (action with intent to harm), be it verbal, emotional, physical or sexual, is not okay. The only good relationship is a safe relationship. Period.
As I describe in my book about adolescence, "The Connected Father," parents can suggest four basic treatment questions to which their son or daughter needs to ask and answer "yes" to affirm that the significant dating relationship is good, or at least good enough.
First: "Do I like how I treat myself in the relationship?" For example, "Do I give my needs and wants as much importance as the other person's in the relationship?"
Second: "Do I like how I treat the other person in the relationship?" For example, "Do I accept the right of the other person to view things differently from me?"
Third: "Do I like how the other person treats me in the relationship?" For example, "Does the other person accept my disagreement without criticizing me or pushing to change my mind?"
Fourth: "Do I like how the other person treats himself or herself in the relationship?" For example, "Does the other person manage frustration or disappointment calmly without becoming angry or upset?"
If the young person cannot answer "yes" to all four questions, then there is some work to do on the relationship. For many young people, the path to learning how to have a good relationship runs through the hard experience of having one or more bad relationships. In the words of one high school junior: "I never want to go though another relationship like that!"
If a serious relationship becomes emotionally intensified by first love, then there are more specific questions parents can suggest for the young person to consider because love relationships are the most intimately complex and challenging of all. These are questions relevant not just for late adolescents, but for couples of any age.
-- The Expression question: "Do you both feel free to speak up about what matters?"
-- The Attention question: "Do you both feel listened to when expressing a concern?"
-- The Respect question: "Do you both observe comfort and safety limits that each other sets?"
-- The Conflict question: "Do you both manage disagreement so neither of you feels threatened or gets emotionally or physically injured?"
-- The Commitment question: "Do you both keep promises and agreements that have been made?"
-- The Honesty question: "Do you both trust each other to tell the truth?"
-- The Independence question: "Do you both support each other having separate time apart?"
-- The Anger question: "Do you both express and respond to an offense or violation so you can talk it out and work it out, not act it out?"
-- The Equity question: "Do you both evenly share so neither one does most of the giving or getting?"
-- The Communication question: "Do you both keep each other adequately informed?"
It takes a lot of work to create a love relationship in which both parties can answer "yes" to all these questions. As parents, it is NOT your job to manage their relationships. It is your job, however, to provide your son or daughter with the important questions to ask.
What you want is for your teenager to learn from significant dating or in-love experience what it means and what it takes to have a good relationship so that he or she is more likely, if so choosing, to make a well working committed partnership later on.
There's no point talking about a good serious dating relationship without talking about the potential for sexual involvement. Self-report surveys like the 2005 report by the National Center for Health Statistics indicate around 50% of students having had sexual intercourse by the end of high school.
What this suggests is that a lot of students do have sex, and about the same number don't. So if a young person elects not to have sex, they have a lot of good company. Generally, parents want to play for delay - not saying "not ever" but "not yet." For safety, having sex is like using alcohol or other drugs: the later you wait to start, the more mature (and wiser) your decision-making is likely to be.
From what I have seen, the three most common causes for serious dating relationships becoming sexually active are for the sake of "love", altered judgment from alcohol or other drug use, and for a rite of adult passage - hooking up to act grown up.
Of course, if your son or daughter is "in-love" the possibility of becoming sexually active increases. The relationship becomes more affectionate, affection becomes more sexually arousing, sexual arousal intensifies emotion, emotion overrules judgment, and the immediacy of pleasure is more compelling than being careful about outcomes.
Advice parents need to give their son or daughter is to manage this relationship with maturity by "consulting later before deciding now." The sexual restraint questions to ask are these. "If I have sex with this person, what emotional and physical consequences might I face, and are they worth the risks that I am taking?"
True love means loving the other person enough to keep them free of sexual harm.
If, against their parents wishes, young people in love are determined to become sexually active, then they need to have the good sense to safely plan their sexual activity by using sexual protection. For sure, parents need to explain how having sex doesn't mean you have love, how having love doesn't mean you have to have sex, and how having had sex with someone once does not oblige you to have it again.
Sexual advice for young people who are seriously dating is to keep the relationship sober because most first sexual experiences are drug or alcohol affected. Just as parents tell the teenager not to drink or drug and drive, they need to extend that warning to dating. "Don't drink or drug and date (either you or the other person) because substance use alters judgment, lowers inhibitions, increases impulse, and causes people to commit and allow behavior that they would not if they were substance-free." Many emotionally and physically coerced sexual encounters at this age are abetted by substance use.
As for sex as a rite of passage into adulthood, hooking up to proving one is now manly or womanly; well, it doesn't. It only proves that you are putting yourself or the other person at risk of a whole lot of dangerous outcomes.
Understand that your son or daughter is not obliged to have a serious dating or in-love relationship in high school. From what I have seen, probably not more than half of late adolescents have a serious dating relationship in high school, and less than that experience falling "in-love."
What I have also seen, however, is that although many parents are reluctant to talk with their teenager about the management of sexual behavior, even fewer ever talk to their son or daughter about what constitutes a "good" relationship.
Next week's entry: TOO OLD/TOO SOON: Moderating your adolescent's speed of growth.