The New Rules for Teen Dating


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As prom season approaches, it’s easy to conjure romantic thoughts of dating rituals we experienced long ago. Perhaps the thought of all those sweet young couples slow dancing under paper streamers coaxes a nostalgic sigh or two.

Ah, reality. If you’re the parent of a child who’s recently started middle school, get ready for a decidedly new dating scene. Yes, the prom as we knew it still exists, but even its drama pales in comparison to today’s boy-girl relationship issues.

“It’s not your parents’ dating anymore,” concedes Robin Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Health. “We don’t have the vocabulary, and we don’t have the experiences to be able to help. We’re learning this at the same time our children are navigating through it.”

What follows is a teen dating primer to help your child — and you — forge the valley between child and young adult.

Dating starts earlier

It’s not unusual for sixth-graders to say “I have a boyfriend/girlfriend.” Often these relationships develop through texting. These first relationships usually don’t go beyond chatting, posing for pictures later posted on social media and requests to attend co-ed group outings. Most experts and parents consulted for this article say group “dates” to the mall, movies or even a friend’s house are fine as long as they’re supervised, even if it means just being in the same shopping center.

Ed Parrish, a banker and father of four from Graham, has noticed that his 13-year-old son has started asking his older sister if her friend’s younger sister can join her on visits to the Parrish home. They’ll hang out while their older sisters visit. Sometimes, his son will go to the movies with guy friends and “meet up” with a group of girls from school, Parrish says. He feels comfortable with these early forays because “we’ve given him the talk about the need to respect young ladies and what we expect of him.”

What to watch for: Cell phones and social media can lay traps for preteens and young teens. Parents should establish ground rules for texting members of the opposite sex and explain the importance of avoiding any form of “sexting.” Parents should also monitor their child’s text conversations and follow/friend them on any social media sites where they have accounts. Young teens have especially fragile egos, so negative peer feedback on social media can be especially damaging.

The new ‘talking’ phase of dating

Kids today don’t plunge into dating without first going through the “talking to each other” phase. This means a boy and girl who feel an attraction spend time together, whether alone or in groups, then text and/or Snapchat in-between. A fairly high bar stands between this phase and actual “dating,” wherein one member of the couple — still usually the boy — officially asks the other out.

Megan*, a senior at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, says only about 20 percent of these relationships result in an official couple. Jennifer*, a junior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, notes that while it’s not cool to “talk” to more than one person at a time, some people go from one talking “relationship” to another without actually dating anyone, which tends to explain the relatively low numbers of actual couples. For instance, among Megan’s circle of about seven close girlfriends, only two have boyfriends. The rest are either single or talking to someone.

“Maybe among the younger girls it’s more important to have a boyfriend, but as we’ve gotten older, it’s just not as important,” she says.

Parents should try to stay on top of who their child is talking to or dating, and why — especially with younger teens. This is a prime opportunity to find out what they find appropriate and desirable in a romantic partner, says Crystal Reardon, director of counseling for Wake County Public Schools. “There is a balance there. You have to respect your children’s feelings but also want to help keep them safe.”

What to watch for: Girls usually don’t want to bring someone they’re just talking to home to their parents, say both Megan and Jennifer, so be prepared for some flak if you insist.

“You never want the guy to think you’re going, ‘Oh, we’re dating, so I want you to meet them,’ ” Megan says. On the other hand, she adds, “if you’re really dating, at some point you absolutely do want your parents to meet him.”

Events are a group experience

Your teen doesn’t have to be dating or talking to anyone to have a date to the prom, winter formal or Sadie Hawkins dance. That’s because most kids go in large groups and are couples in name only. Johnny may still ask Suzy to be his date, but only after the “group” has decided who will go with whom. The group eats dinner together, poses for pictures together and attends the dance together. Of course, kids who already have relationships — and even some still in the talking phase — will go with that special person, but still as part of a group. As Megan puts it: “It’s not, ‘Who’s your date? But, ‘What group are you going with?’ ”

What to watch for: Officially, it’s OK for kids who aren’t part of a large friend group to go with just a date or with another couple, and it’s OK for kids to go “stag.” Unofficially, there are unwritten rules that your teen knows might discourage him from attending even if he wants to. If that’s the case, the only thing you can do is offer support and perhaps plan a trip or outing for that night.

Hooking up is common and accepted

To college students, hooking up means having casual sex. For high-schoolers, it can mean that, too, but usually refers to making out at parties or get-togethers. Kids hook up with people they’ve just met, casual acquaintances and even friends. For most teens, there are no strings attached. Jennifer, when asked if hooking up with a guy meant a girl had a crush on him, says dismissively, “Nope.” And Megan concurs: “It would seem very strange to me that a girl would think there’s something there” after a hookup.

What to watch for: It’s time to have the “values and expectations” talk if you haven’t already. This can mean discussing your family’s views on sex before marriage as well as frank talk about abstinence, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Case in point: There’s a myth in teen circles that you can’t get STDs from oral sex, Gurwitch notes. She says as cringe-inducing as this conversation will be, it has to get done. “Try it while you’re driving,” she advises. “There’s something about not sitting next to each other on a couch that makes this easier for both you and your child.”

Love hurts, regardless of your age

Just because teens are more casual and sophisticated about dating doesn’t mean they don’t still suffer heartbreak. Even 14- and 15-year-olds can fall in love, Reardon says.

“To a child or teenager who is experiencing this, it is very real and very important,” she says. Broken hearts after a breakup are real, too, and just as with adults, there’s no timetable for recovery.

What to watch for: If your teen experiences signs of depression weeks after a breakup, appears to be arguing or behaving differently with their boyfriend/girlfriend, withdraws from other friends, or shows signs of physical abuse such as bruises or scratches, check with your doctor, school counselor or a community psychologist right away, advise both Gurwitch and Reardon.

The new rules for teen dating may be daunting — and surprising — but they are very real and, whether today’s parents like it or not, guide many teen relationships. Plug in, watch for signs and remember that regardless of how the rules change, love evokes the same positive and negative emotions it always has, regardless of what decade it is.

* Names were changed to protect identities.

Suzanne Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.

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