So, your teenager has started dating and you have no idea what to expect. Here are all your questions answered, by a family expert and a psychologist.
Raising teens is just as hard as looking after small children. There might be no more nappy changes or nighttime feeds, but older kids come with a whole new set of anxieties for parents, including worrying about how much sleep teenagers need or why their teenager won't talk to them anymore. And while it's totally normal for teens to start dating and maybe even bring a romantic partner back home to meet the parents, it's an event that can be difficult to navigate.
As well as wondering if your teenager is safe, if they're being treated well and how they might cope with a messy breakup, you might also be wondering about what boundaries need to be put in place and what you should or shouldn't allow your teenager to do when it comes to dating. Specialist family law coach and Life Coach Directory member Nina Francis-Young tells us that it all comes down to communication. "The first thing that I advocate and explore with all of my clients is what we mean by 'dating'. A shared understanding is so important, as it means that all the significant adults in the teenager’s life are unified in their expectations and boundaries," she says. "Without this, your teenager will be receiving mixed messages, which will only confuse them."
With this in mind, we've spoken to the experts to find out what you can expect when your teen has started dating, what you can do to make sure they're safe, and the questions you can ask to make them feel comfortable about opening up.
When should I allow my teenager to start dating?
Many kids will express interest in having a boyfriend or girlfriend as young as primary school. But these playground relationships have a far different dynamic to the romantic relationships they may forge when they're in their teen years, leaving some parents wondering what age it's appropriate for them to start properly dating.
As licensed clinical psychologist Dr Tori Cordiano says: "Rather than a specific age or grade when dating is permitted, it's helpful to think about a teenager's decision-making and their level of maturity and responsibility. Many younger teenagers 'date' in ways that don't look much like traditional dating - they might spend time together in a larger group, or (especially with younger teens) they might be 'dating' without really having much one-on-one contact at all."
That said, if you're the parent of a teen who has started seriously dating, there's not much you can do to prevent this - regardless of their age - as Nina explains. She says, "If your teenager wants to experiment with dating and physical intimacy, they will have ample opportunity to do so and you will be hard pushed to prevent it."
Nina advises working to establish mutual trust, respect and powerful communication strategies. She says that these aspects of your relationship with your teen will put you in a much stronger position to explore the world of dating with them, including what it means to them, what their friends are doing, and the difference between what dating looks like in the mass media and ‘real dating’.
"From here, you can explore together what they want, and you can guide them to where you feel comfortable too," adds Nina.
What can I expect when my teenager starts dating?
Depending on the nature of your relationship with your teenager, they may not reveal to you that they are dating right away, or, alternatively, they might be excited and want to tell you all about it.
Dr Cordiano says, "While this isn't true for every family, you might also expect some resistance from your teenager in talking about their dating life. That's okay - it's still important to have the conversations (just keep them short)."
Meanwhile, Nina says that if your teen is reluctant to tell you about their romantic life, it will "likely be rooted in embarrassment or fear or reprimand". However, she adds, "If you have strong communication and can put yourself in your teenager’s shoes, you will be better equipped to overcome either situation."
Remember that your teen's dating life might look a little different to what we picture as traditional dating if they are in early adolescence.
How can I make sure my teen is safe when they start dating?
For many parents, their first concern when they find out their teen is dating will be whether they are safe. The only way to put your mind at ease is to talk to your teen, but these conversations can feel awkward.
Dr Cordiano suggests "getting in front of the awkwardness" by saying something like: 'Listen, I know this isn't a conversation you're dying to have, but it's important to me that we talk through some things now that you're dating. I promise to keep this short.'
Meanwhile, Nina explains, "One of the most important safety issues to address is boundaries; what are boundaries and how does your teenager stay true to their boundaries?" She adds that the most effective boundaries come when your teenager has a sense of their self-value and worth, so this is the first thing to explore with them.
Dr Cordiano adds that it may seem like your teen isn't listening when you have these conversations, but they will be taking in what you say, so it's important to relay guidelines and expectations around issues such as where your teenager is permitted to go and with whom, consent for romantic and sexual behaviours, and what you want them to do if a relationship starts to make them feel uncomfortable in any way.
Nina says that ultimately it all comes back to the respect, trust and strong communication you have hopefully built into your relationship with your teen. She explains, "You will not be able to have meaningful conversations with your teenager if you have not created a safe and valued space of positive communication. This is where you start and this should start when they are young children, but starting now is better than never."
What questions should I ask my teenager when they start dating?
From our writer...
Ellie Hutchings - Features Editor
After speaking to our experts, it seems clear to me that taking an open, non-judgmental approach to your teen's first forays into dating is key to making sure they are safe and feel supported. I'm sure we can all remember how exciting that first relationship is - as well as how tough teen breakups can be. You'll want your teen to feel they can share the happy times with you, but also know that you'll be there with open arms if things go wrong.
It's natural to want to know the details about your teen's relationship, but asking too many questions could put their back up, and discourage them from offering up the information themselves.
As Nina says, "Unless you have already established good communication channels with your teenager, then asking questions will be fruitless as they may just refuse to respond to you or tell you what you want to hear. They may also interpret your questions as you trying to find fault, or invading their privacy."
Our experts advised that asking open-ended questions and avoiding being too direct is the best route to take. Asking your teenager about how they feel in their relationship, or how the person they're with makes them feel, is a good place to start.
- "It seems like you're in a good mood when you come home from [name]'s house - what makes you feel good about spending time with them?"
- "How are things with [name]?"
- "How do you feel when you are with [name]?"
Dr Tori explains that, for girls in particular, centring their own experiences and preferences is an important part of learning to cultivate healthy, fulfilling relationships. Asking them these questions communicates that their own feelings should be an essential part of their romantic life.
We spoke to the following experts:
Dr. Tori Cordiano is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the emotional, psychological, and behavioural development of children and adolescents. She is a consulting psychologist for Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and a co-director of Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls.
Nina Francis-Young is the founder of Frank. conversations, and a specialist family law coach who has worked with many parents of teenage children. Her specialism lies in supporting separated parents and co-parents to support their teenagers. Nina has a background in education, academic psychology and sociology and combines these specialisms to inform her scientifically underpinned coaching practices. Nina is also a Mum to four, two of whom are teenagers.
Elsewhere, this is the real reason your teenager is sleeping in late, and if your teen never takes your advice, here's how to make yourself heard. Meanwhile, research has shown that your favourite TV show could influence your teen's future career.
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Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.
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