Dating Dilemma: How Parents Should Respond to Puppy Love

boy and girlBy Kathy P. Behan 

Your daughter comes home from school and utters the phrase that strikes terror in every parent’s heart, “He asked me out!”

Your child is 11, and is no more prepared for dating, than for driving a car. The good news is that the boy is the same age as your daughter, and even though he’s probably a perfectly fine and upstanding young man, you’re not wild about your kid dating anyone. So what’s a parent to do?

For starters, don’t overreact. Take a deep breath, and think before you speak. “If parents overreact they run the risk of communicating something they don’t intend,” believes Sue Blaney, the author of Please Stop the Rollercoaster: How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride. “They may scare the child, and give them misinformation. Parents should be thoughtful, intentional, and use this situation as an opportunity to ask questions, and have a discussion.”

Plus, you want as much information as possible. If you’re upset, and blurt out threats or commands, it’s a surefire way to get your kid to clam up.

Now that you’re calm, find out exactly what your daughter means. “You need the child to define ‘going out’,” says Marie Sigman, a certified school psychologist, educational consultant and guidance counselor at the Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury. “Ten to 12 year olds use this simply as a way of saying they like someone. Sometimes they talk about going out, meaning that they want to do things together. Other times it just means talking on the phone or emailing one another.”

In order to have a meaningful discussion, it’s best if parents have familiarized themselves with their child’s adolescent culture. In other words, know the dating scene. What are her friends doing? Are most kids her age going out with boys, or would she be one of the few? If other kids are dating, what are they doing? Are they going out in a group? Are they literally going anywhere, or does it just involve phone and computer talks? Compare notes with other parents about their “dating knowledge” as well.

You can’t make informed decisions in a vacuum. Having this knowledge will help put things in perspective. “You have to know where your kids are, who their friends are, and the culture they’re in, because the culture changes all the time,” says Sigman.

Once you have the “going out” definition down, and you’ve talked to your child about their expectations, now it’s your turn to talk about your feelings, values and most importantly, rules concerning dating.

“It’s appropriate to go to the movies with a whole group of people – that’s perfectly normal for sixth graders,” says Sigman. But going on a date just with a boy should not be permitted.

“You’re trying to delay dating because you’re trying to keep children involved in proper, healthy activities, and to discourage early sexual activity,” says Sigman. “They’re not ready for this. If parents sit back and say, ‘It’s so cute they’re going out,’ really, it’s not cute. The kids are uncomfortable, and don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not emotionally ready for an intimate relationship.”

That concern is echoed by Ann Drouilhet, LICSW, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Family Development Associates in Framingham. “Because they’re a couple, kids think that should dictate moving on to the next level, which is to become physically intimate,” she says. “They may be put in situations that are over their heads.”

At this age, there’s a lot of pressure on kids to date, often from their friends who are trying to set them up. This is especially true for girls. “When a girl finds out that a certain boy likes her, she often feels an obligation to go out with him,” says Drouilhet. “Boys don’t get sucked into that as much.”

Girls also have another disadvantage. “At ages 10 to 12 a girl can lose confidence about who she is as an individual,” says Drouilhet. “She may see dating as an outside reassurance of her worth. Her self-esteem can be tied up with who she’s going out with.”

So besides not being allowed to go out alone with a boy, it’s time to establish other ground rules as well. Be clear and open about your values about dating, relationships and sex. Ask your child why she wants a boyfriend. Talk to her about the difference between love and sex. “Reassure kids that it’s perfectly OK not to be in a relationship at their age,” Drouilhet says. “Tell them that it’s normal to like boys, but they don’t need to date them until they’re older.”

Explain what is allowed: going with a group of friends to a movie, sporting event, or other organized activity. And no matter what they’re doing, make sure there’s plenty of adult supervision. “It’s important for parents to be very clear about their role,” stresses Blaney, “One of their roles is to keep their kids safe. Another, is to be knowledgeable about what is age appropriate, and developmentally appropriate for their child. Parents have to be very comfortable in saying no, as well as saying yes.”

Drouilhet also encourages strong parental involvement when it comes to dating. “Parents have a lot of influence with their child at this age, don’t give it up,” she says. “The mother and father should present a united front on dating, and give their child consistent messages. Parents need to get their opinions out there, don’t shy away from giving kids your input on relationships.”

Dating, growing up, and life are complicated. Parents want their children to be able to deal with whatever comes up. But kids should know that they’re not supposed to have all the answers, and sometimes, you don’t have them either. And that’s OK. Kids just need to know they can come to you for anything, and everything – that you’re always available, and on their side.

Even with the most complete preparation, there’s still bound to be relationship heartbreak. When the inevitable happens, and a young couple breaks up, how should parents handle it?
“Let them express their emotions,” says Sigman. “Remain very calm, and accepting about how sad they are. Once you get beyond that you can discuss how they’re going to deal with school the next day, and what to say to their friends. I’d also ask them what they learned from this. How they might have a different approach next time. Empower them by saying, you know this is probably going to happen again, but you didn’t do anything wrong, relationships just change sometimes. Kids have to feel their own pain – that’
s part of growing up. Just being with them is helpful.”

Sigman also wants to remind parents that middle school is probably the only place where a boy and a girl could start going out together through someone else, never see each other, and break up by the end of the day. So you really can’t take these relationships too seriously.

Even though it may not seem it at the time, there is a silver lining in the breakup storm. The advantage of going through heartbreak in your teenage years is that you become resilient,” says Drouilhet. “You learn when you’re young that you can survive rejection. You can survive disappointment and loss. Those are important life lessons. When you experience this when you’re young, and when the stakes are relatively low, it makes you a more resilient adult. Pain comes with the territory of being a human being, learning how to manage emotional pain will help kids become fully-equipped adults.”

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a freelance writer specializing in health and family issues. 

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