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Navigating “When can I start dating?” and Other Fun Questions

Hello, PATH Parents!

Hopefully, your family is enjoying a wonderful summer of more relaxed schedules and fun activities that July’s beautiful weather affords (at last)! Perhaps you find yourself in more frequent conversations with your teen as you hike trails together or rest on a sandy beach in-between swimming sets. Maybe you have been asked some of the questions that parents are typically NOT prepared to answer, including “When can I start dating?” 

When we are presented with questions that we are not expecting, sometimes the best answer is, “That’s a great question. Let me think on that, and we can talk about it in a day or two.” We do not always have to produce wise answers on the spot. Sometimes taking some time to thoughtfully consider dynamics will save us headaches later.

Also, teens like to be explained the “whys.” It makes them feel respected as we reinforce that they are indeed growing up and are able to handle more “grown up” topics and discussions. So “pulling back the curtain” and explaining the bigger picture with our parental reasoning and responses helps them to more readily accept our answers to their questions.

Most parents answer the question “When can I start dating?” with a number or a broad stage of life, i.e., “When you turn 16” or “When you are in high school.” It’s not wrong to provide teens general expectations or projected time frames; however, in this case, does an age number for dating really set your teen up to win? Might this situation have additional considerations that could make that number NOT really work (and therefore have to be denied when the time comes)? It is important that we do not promise things to our teens that we cannot follow through on ultimately.

What about a different approach? What about explaining the dynamics that would make dating a positive experience and therefore be a welcomed addition to our teen’s life? What if we based the time frame less on an arbitrary number (out of our teen’s control) and more on our teen’s own growth and development (within our teen’s control)? What if we based the start of this experience for our teen upon the right (healthy) dynamics being in place?

Instead of answering with a number, we can first explain healthy relationship dynamics and then say to our daughter, for example, “Healthy relationships are an important part of life and of becoming an adult, and we WANT you to grow up and be a healthy, successful adult. So as soon as you demonstrate that you can responsibly handle a dating relationship AND when a great young man comes along, you can certainly start dating. However, first he will come to our home and get to know you here with our family as we have game nights, movie nights, etc. As he shows us that he respects you and values his relationship with you, that he IS a great addition to your life, you two can gain some more freedom with time just the two of you here at our house in the rec room, playing games, watching movies, etc. Once you two show us you can be responsible with that freedom, then you two can go out alone to dinner or the movies, etc. Really, this will all depend upon you, your maturity level, and your willingness to honor our family and family rules together.”

This approach puts the responsibility for the timeline squarely on our teen’s shoulders (instead of on “mean mom” or “mean dad” who “won’t let me date at 16 like other teens my age”). It shows that we are willing to trust our teen to do the right things and potentially earn more freedoms over time. It also eliminates the risk that when our teen turns that magic number 16, he or she looks frantically around to find any warm body to date in order to have a much-anticipated experience.

Let’s take the easy breezy days of summer to strengthen our relationships with our teens and share conversations that truly mentor them to understand healthy life dynamics and, when the time is right, enjoy them!

In the parenting trenches with you,
Lisa Raftery