So, your kid wants to make it official with their crush. This probably makes you want to 1.) bury your head in the sand or 2.) lock them in their bedroom until they’re 21. Or both. But sorry. Neither of these options is viable.
Whether you think your kid is old enough to date or not, you have to tackle the issue head-on. Take a deep breath and get ready to talk to your child about dating.
When are they “old enough”?
First things first: What on earth is even an OK age to start dating? It may come as a disappointment to parents that there are no rules here. Whether your child is “old enough” should be determined by your child. It’s not unusual for certain 12-year-olds to be more mature than certain 15-year-olds, etc. Counselor Heidi McBain tells SheKnows if your child has a solid sense of herself, good time-management skills, is doing well at school and in her activities, is trustworthy (i.e., she is where she says she will be/calls when she says she will/comes home before curfew, etc.) and is emotionally mature in that she can handle positive and negative feelings in a healthy way, these are all signs she is mature enough to date.
Psychotherapist Kelley Kitley suggests that, bearing in mind each child’s maturity level, middle school is a good time for kids to start dating if they are showing a natural interest in someone else. “It’s important for them to learn foundational skills of developing a relationship,” she says. “I encourage the parents I work with to have open and honest dialogue, certainly about sexual intimacy and boundaries. In middle school, kids might be going out with a few friends including their love interest. Maybe they start developing a text communication first. It’s important to give them independence — but also supervision. Set ground rules about not being home alone without a parent.”
“Try not to tie dating to an age, particularly if you have more than one child,” warns licensed psychologist Julia Simens. Simens recommends looking at each situation and deciding if it is appropriate. For example, going to a school-sponsored date is very different than going to a late-night concert, and going on a date with a neighborhood friend is very different than going with a kid from another town.
Licensed psychologist Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes tells SheKnows it’s crucial you ask your child what their definition of dating actually is and consider how that compares to your definition of dating. “There may be a chance that the two definitions are not in alignment. If there is a general rule in place but open conversation can take place, it gives room for parents to express their concern. I would ask the child how they intend to meet their educational and social obligations and whether they would be open to their parent meeting their date. If the child does not have a legitimate point to make, they are simply not ready to date — and you have less work to do to justify your point of view.”
When you think they’re too young
If you think your child is too young to date, it’s important to communicate your reasons for this rather than just saying, “I won’t allow this.”
“It’s important to process the reason so your kid doesn’t view dating as a ‘bad’ thing,” says Kitley. “You don’t want them to feel shameful for asking. Use an open and honest direct approach explaining your reasons why and suggesting what age it would be OK to date.”
For example, if your kid is barely passing their classes, you might want them to improve their grades before they start dating (not as a punishment, but because spending time on dates would take time away from their studies). Or you might want your child to help out more with household chores to prove they’re mature enough to date. As part of an open, honest, productive conversation about dating, take the chance to explain exactly what you need to see to know your child is mature enough (and ready) to date.
When everyone else is dating
Prepare yourself for the “but everyone else is doing it” argument, and don’t let guilt sway you if you genuinely believe your child is too young to date.
“Each family is different,” says McBain. “A peer’s parents might have different requirements for dating than your family. It’s important as a parent to separate out what everyone else is doing and focus on the values and expectations that your family has for your child.”
When they’re LGBTQ
It should go without saying that if your child wants to date someone of the same sex, that should not affect your approach at all. “As much as possible, respect your child’s decisions and be nonjudgmental about their sexual preferences. Trying to control the outcome will only hurt your relationship with them.”
However, if your child wants to date the same sex, their maturity level might be even more critical, says McBain. Help prepare them in case someone makes a hurtful or otherwise insensitive comment toward them (because unfortunately, some people, even teens, still view same-sex relationships as undesirable.) And remember: Many kids do not come out to their parents first, largely out of fear of judgment or criticism. So do your absolute best to create a judgment-free zone where they feel safe.
When you’re controlled by fear
If you approach your kid dating with a heavy hand, laying down the law and refusing to listen to their point of view, you risk damaging your relationship with them. The repercussions could be even greater if your child is at an age when most of their peers are already dating.
“If everyone your child knows is dating and they are not allowed to, they can start feeling left out and left behind with what the ‘norm’ is for people their age,” says McBain. That doesn’t mean you have to let them date if you truly believe they aren’t ready, but you should consider your reasons carefully.
“Teens simply will not respect your authority if your reasons seem ridiculous,” says Rhodes. “If you are parenting out of fear, you are more likely to get a battle. If you are parenting to help your teen have healthy experiences, then share your own dating stories from that age and express your wish that they have a different experience.”
As scary as it can be to let your child start dating, you’re actually helping them learn important skills. Through dating, they learn to relate to other people and use communication and active-listening skills, which will help to prepare them for a relationship when they meet the right person. Whatever “rules” you may impose, always tell your child you truly want dating to be a positive, fun experience for them — when the time is right — and that you’re up for chatting about it, without judgment or recrimination, whenever they wish.