Your daughter, who is in grade seven, tells you that she’s “going out with someone.” What does that mean exactly?
She doesn’t seem to want to invite her special friend over and, as far as you can see, the only “date” they’ve had was going with a larger gang of friends to the movies.
“With younger teens, it’s mostly practice,” says Sarah McIvor,* who teaches a grade seven/eight split class near Port Hope, Ont. “It’s funny — the kids in grade seven who are supposedly going out together don’t actually communicate directly that much at all. A girl who is interested in a boy will tell her friend, who tells a friend of the boy, who tells the boy, and somehow it’s decided that they are officially going out together. They may hug when they come in from recess — which is usually just a quick moment of contact, and they certainly do a lot of online chatting, but they don’t seem to do things together much. When it comes time to break up, that also happens through third parties.”
By the time kids are in grade eight, dating intensifies, says McIvor. Kids do spend time together and hold hands in public, and they might even visit each other’s houses.
A recent canadianparents.com forum featured a lively discussion on young love, and parents were divided. Some thought it was best to ban dating until age 15 or 16. Others worried that doing so would just make things worse: As one poster said, “Forbidden fruit is the tastiest.” Other parents were dealing with kids struggling with the emotional intensity of romance.
Parents also discussed their concerns about kids’ sexual activity. Studies show it’s a pretty sure bet that kids who are dating at this age are engaging in some physical affection. According to one large US survey, 44 percent of 13- and 14-year-olds have kissed someone romantically, 14 percent had been with someone in an intimate or sexual way, but only five percent had had intercourse. (The numbers rise dramatically among 15- and 16-year-olds.)
Kim Hetherington is a project coordinator at the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs and mom to 11-year-old twin girls. In her view, there’s no point in banning dating because kids will get around that.
“Parents really need to talk with their kids about all aspects of dating,” she says, “not just the physical side, but how to have healthy relationships.”
“I don’t think there’s a problem with kids having what I would call a special friendship, but it’s important to talk with kids about what the boundaries are around that,”says Hetherington. Parents still have a huge influence on kids, even though their kids may seem not to listen to what they say at times. Here are some things to talk about:
Acknowledge that kids are interested in dating. Feelings of attraction are a normal and healthy part of development for young teens. Debra Haffner, the author of Beyond the Big Talk, suggests it’s also important not to trivialize these relationships. “These new-found feelings in a relationship can be intense — and the breakups can be intense too.” She also observes that what’s important to kids this age is “having a boyfriend or girlfriend (often from the right group), not creating an intimate relationship.”
Encourage kids to pay attention to their feelings. Peer pressure is huge at this age, observes Hetherington. “Kids need to know that just because their friends are getting into relationships, that doesn’t mean that they have to as well if they’re feeling pressured or uncomfortable.”
Talk about your values. Parents should discuss the importance of good communication in relationships, and about the cultural pressures to be attractive or sexy.
Haffner says kids need to know more than just the facts about human sexuality and pregnancy prevention; parents need to talk about their “own values regarding premarital sex, what being in love means and how to negotiate sexual limits.”
Model healthy relationships. According to Hetherington, there’s a lot of research to support the fact that kids model their relationships on those of their parents. “If kids see us — or other significant adults in their lives — having respectful, trusting relationships, where there’s good communication, they’ll learn from that.”
*Name changed by request.