Every family has its own feelings and rules about dating, but sometimes parents don’t know what their rules are until their teen is ready to date. With the strong influence of social media and privacy concerns, especially cell phones, parents are faced with even more questions and challenges.
“Teen dating absolutely terrifies me for my 14-year-old,” says Julie Khanna, a Palm Beach County mother of three. “The reality of our world is that everything is overly sexualized. Sexual fluidity has been normalized, and we are desensitized to nudity. All of these things make me fear that the minimum terms of dating are a far evolution from hand holding, pop kisses and love notes.”
Community Partners’ Teen Outreach Program serves sixth- through 12th-graders in Palm Beach County, using a teen club model to help build self-esteem, confidence and goal setting, while empowering the development of healthy behaviors and life skills and giving teens a sense of purpose.
Program coordinator Wynsome McLean suggests parents discuss teen dating in a non-threatening way to strengthen their relationship. “You have to take the time to get to know your child or teen — know what they like, what music they listen to, all of that,” she says. “This takes intentionality. You have to step outside your traditional role as parent and try to be creative in the way you connect.”
An example of this technique might be to talk honestly about the person you were crushing on back when you were a teen, McLean says. This keeps the conversation fun, taking the focus off the teen.
“When we put ourselves out there, it makes it easier for them to identify and connect with us,” she says. “This normalizes the fact that everyone has these feelings and goes through these periods of transition.”
Rosana Vargas is a Teen Outreach facilitator and a Palm Beach County mother of two. “With the easy access to a plethora of information at the fingertips of our youth, I believe having age-appropriate conversations about dating, relationships and/or romantic feelings should begin once the child enters middle school,” she says.
Vargas likes the American Academy of Pediatric’s healthychildren.org site’s information and resources about teen development with tips on age-appropriate language. “The website is also in Spanish, which helped my husband also understand the conversation that would take place,” she says.
Vargas also received tips about safety and sexual health from her daughter’s pediatrician. A casual setting to talk with your child is the key to not making it a big deal, but give them a heads-up on the topic, she says.
Discovering your own family’s boundaries
“A conversation with the child is vital, not a lecture,” Vargas says. “It was important for my husband and I to agree what we would discuss, but the most important thing was allowing our child to fully express herself and ask questions as uncomfortable or stupid as it may seem. For us personally, our faith also played a key role, therefore we almost customized the conversation to fit our family and values.”
Values-based parenting, the concept of using a set of family values to be your guide, is an effective starting point to helping teens determine good decisions from poor decisions, says Amy Simpson, former executive director of Boys Town South Florida. The Boys Town website is packed with information for parents, including a family values tool that families can fill out together, print, sign and keep as a reference.
“This tool is a good way to address what’s right for your family and not for everyone else’s,” Simpson says.
While parents need to understand their value system, they also may have to assist their teens in assessing their values in today’s youth culture, especially as the importance of peer relationships transcends familial relationships. This can be confusing to teens because their growing personal identity might be a societal contradiction.
“Teens are not trying to be defiant; they are just trying to figure out who they are. Parents need a level of guidance to discern these developmental processes,” McLean says.
Being transparent with sensitive topics
Khanna wonders what the expectations of her daughter will be when dating time comes. “I fully intend on outlining our expectations of her, but our hopes are very modest,” she says. “In fact, I am still hoping to forgo the dating stage and just hold out for the ‘I met my spouse — my one and only love. Here's to hoping!”
Using what youth are exposed to the most — the media — can be a good place to start addressing sensitive topics, says Vargas, who printed out news articles and watched YouTube videos to initiate conversations. She also regularly schedules one-on-one time or mother/daughter dates.
“Again, the most important part is having a mutual conversation,” she says. “What I’ve learned the most about working with youth is that they just want to be heard. Also having an open-door policy for your child to come to you to talk about the drama or whatever they are experiencing has worked for me.”
Try not to feel intimidated about being transparent about where their children have been and their dating experiences, McLean says. “What we have proven over and over again is that when we are transparent with teens, they will be transparent with you,” she says.
For even tougher issues, Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse has a teen dating violence prevention program called Commit to Change. The project was developed in partnership with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says Matthew Tyler, violence prevention educator.
Commit to Change implements educational presentations in Palm Beach County classrooms for all grades. Middle and high schools cover dating violence, peer violence, healthy relationships, conflict resolution and safety planning, coupled with impact projects that bring the student’s skills deeper into their communities.
“Through education and empowerment, young people can learn to live violence-free, enriched and healthy lifestyles,” Tyler says.
As teens start dating, we must understand and be patient with the developmental process, Tyler says. “As parents, we can start to have conversations with our youth about what is healthy in a relationship (boundaries, communication, etc.), so that their first relationships are healthy, rather than reacting to unhealthy ones later in life,” he says.
Adults can use media examples to initiate difficult conversations, Tyler says. “When our teens are listening to a favorite song or watching TV or a movie, we can use that moment to discuss a challenging topic of sex or unhealthy behaviors being displayed,” he says. “Listen first and build an open, trusting relationship with your teen to continue having the challenging but very important conversations.”
Here’s how to align your teen with the ground rules to foster healthy relationships:
• Invite the person your teen is dating to your house so you can get to know him or her.
• Initiate an honest discussion with your teen about boundaries.
• Encourage your teen to go on group dates with other friends.
• If you feel your teen’s relationship is inappropriate or dangerous, let your teen know.
SOURCE: Boys Town
• Matthew Tyler, violence prevention educator, Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse
• Amy Simpson, former executive director, Boys Town South Florida
• Wynsome McLean, Teen Outreach Program coordinator, Community Partners
• Rosana Vargas, facilitator, Teen Outreach Program, Community Partners