Going Out

What to expect when your child starts dating

by gina roberts-grey

Your idea of dating is probably filled with dinners, movies, museums and uninterrupted conversation. The chance to get out of the house with your paramour and share an intimate dinner for two or a lazy afternoon stroll are just a few enticing dating options for busy adults. Walking hand in hand as you’re fighting for space to walk down a crowded hallway while carrying multiple books, stopping every ten feet to chat with a friend or get the inside track on an upcoming test, definitely does not seem to classify as any type of romantic interlude -- let alone a date.

Oddly enough, the latter situation is one that occurs countless times every school day of the year. ‘Going out’ and ‘seeing each other’ are frequently uttered phrases in our children’s middle and high schools. In the halls, friends are coerced into acting as a covert liaison with a secret crush. ‘Breaking up’ and ‘getting back together’ happen as frequently as pencils are sharpened. Children spend hours talking on the phone and on the bus about how to find a love interest, how to lose a love interest or who has a new love interest.

While our children are in a terrific hurry to experiment with affairs of the heart, parents are not always as willing or prepared for this phase of their child’s life. The potential for teens and tweens to experience a broken heart, or be misinformed about reproduction and disease is significantly higher when they begin dating at a young age.

When a child starts to feel he is old enough to be part of what he perceives is an adult relationship, he begins to make judgments based on the advice of friends, examples in the media, and raging hormones. Sitting down for a heart to heart with mom on his struggles in algebra is replaced with hours instant messaging his new love interest. Knowing how to help your child navigate through the intrepid waters of first loves often leaves parents feeling as naive as their children do.

When her twelve year old son came home from middle school raving about his new girlfriend, Laura Schwebber fought back her giggles. “My first thought was ‘Where are you going?’” Much to her surprise, her son’s budding relationship lasted for nearly a year. “I thought this would be a two week fleeting moment. I couldn’t believe they spent so much time together.”

The fragile egos and emotional stability of young children can be significantly compromised when incorporating matters of love. Although discovering love and the desire for a companion is a natural process of life, children in a hurry to dive into this complex phase of life can find themselves in precocious situations.

Experimenting with their sexuality

“I was mortified when my niece stumbled upon my son and his girlfriend kissing behind the bushes at a family event,” says Schwebber. Laura’s surprise is one shared by many parents. Few of us are able to look at our precious eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds and see them as burgeoning adults.

The desire for parents to ignore the possibility that children as young as eleven are engaging in kissing, groping, and sexual activities is understandable. The notion that the person you see still needing to hold your hand across the street is seen by peers as ‘eligible’ ‘available’ and ‘attractive’ is boggling. Even harder to fathom is that children are experimenting with mature emotional issues before they’re in high school or old enough to drive.

Delving into the physical aspects of dating opens a physical world many children are not emotionally or mentally prepared for. The pressure or temptation to begin discovering their sexuality is heightened when children start dating. They increase the potential of disease and emotional devastation when introducing physical contact into their immature relationship.

Despite the inclination for everyone to feel uncomfortable, talking with your child about the risks associated with dating, and the importance of maintaining his individuality helps preserve a child’s fragile emotions.

“I think I was more nervous than my daughter.” Jane Lawler nervously laughs recalling the first time she and her daughter seriously discussed dating. “We had already discussed shaving, wearing bras and menstruation, but this was different. I knew this talk would help shape her dating ideals.”

Jane’s trepidation is not without merit. Your first reactions to your child’s discovery of love can determine how much information they’ll be willing to trust you with. If he senses you’re not receptive to this passage of life, he may opt to keep feelings, details or questions from you.

Conversely, expressing your availability and interest to hear about the new cute boy in Spanish, or the girl he always sits next to on the bus creates an environment where your child will be willing to invite you into his world. Being privy to who he’s going out with, where they’re actually going, and what they’re doing, helps you prepare your child for the many steps of love and dating.

When love affects grades

Teen dating affects moods, mannerisms and even a child’s performance in school. Beth Maurin, a Foreign Language Teacher at Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois has seen how going out affects her students. “They change schedules to be in the same class – until they break up and want to switch classes again to avoid each other.” Herself the mother of three teen boys, Maurin is concerned for how young relationship impact studies.

“Tuning into who is talking to their boyfriend often takes priority over paying attention to the class lesson,” Maurin explains. Missing assignments instead of missing a phone call, or forgetting to study for a biology quiz yet remembering how many hours they’ve spent as a couple becomes common practice of children going out. Maurin has seen the grade point averages of dating students drop and teens intentionally misbehave in class in order to gain the attention of a potential love interest.

Pairing dating with friends

Although our children relish feeling independent, they often rely on a support network when dating. Conspiring to set-up her best friend with her boyfriend’s best friend, is a natural process. Although teens and tweens think they’re ready to have a relationship and share their lives with a partner, their sub-conscious tells them otherwise.

Needing the reassurance that friends provide, most teen couples can be found among groups taking in a movie or hanging out in the mall. While this seemingly perfect plan offers children the chance to multi-task and spend time with friends and heart throbs at the same time, it can also backfire.

A teen whose best friend does not share his affection or affinity for his girlfriend can find himself in an uncomfortable predicament. The pressure of having to choose between spending time with his friend or girlfriend is tough for teens and tweens. Guiding him to balance spending quality time with everyone important to him, while following his instincts and taking time for himself, helps teach your child how to preserve the different relationships in his life.

As parents, we know all too well that children will nurse broken hearts and wounded egos on the path to true love. Understanding what they experience upon initially starting this journey helps you prepare them for the many bumps in the road of dating. SFM

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer who often writes on the subjects of families and children.