I remember when my son had his first “girlfriend.” My wife and I had a very strict rule barring all physical contact in teen dating. One summer day, we were at the community pool with our kids. My son was sitting on a bench on the far end of the pool with this young woman. As I watched him, he stretched his arms out and put one arm around her. Wanting him to know I was watching, I slowly stood to my feet with my eyes fixed on him. After a moment, we made eye contact and he quietly brought his arm back to his side.
On the one hand, that’s a funny little anecdote that was, by itself, mostly harmless. However, looking back, I think we subtly sent our kids some distorted messages about teen dating. I noticed other parents do the same thing, though the messages are sometimes different. Here are 5 distorted messages you might be sending your teens about dating.
1. It’s dangerous.
It’s really easy to parent out of fear. In teen dating, there are lots of things to be afraid of from date rape to unplanned pregnancy. So of course, it’s important to be wise and have good boundaries. But when parenting from a position of fear, we risk squeezing the fun out of the process. After all, dating can be a good opportunity for our kids to learn how to sort through romantic feelings and how to express appropriate affection for people. Certainly, it can be painful, but if we can engage our kids in a way that recognizes the risks and potential rewards, we improve the odds of making it a much more rewarding experience overall (for everyone).
2. It’s everything.
Parents can put unreasonable pressure on their kids to always be in a romantic relationship. This can show up with our teens by constantly asking whether he or she’s interested in this or that classmate. It can show up when your teen does enter a relationship and you immediately treat it like it’s the most important relationship in his or her life, allowing your teen to prioritize it over family and other friendships. When we do this, we risk isolating our teens from essential healthy relationships. We also set them up to be crushed when an 11th-grade “romance” comes to an end. We need to emphasize that teen dating relationships are secondary to family and friends. Healthy teen dating occurs in the context of other healthy relationships.
3. It’s not a big deal.
Just like we can make a relationship everything, we can also treat it like it’s nothing. Perhaps you make jokes about how often your son switches girlfriends. Or maybe you never think about including his girlfriend in anything because, after all, it’s just a high school girlfriend. It probably won’t last, right? While that may be true, it’s still important not to dismiss or minimize how important this relationship is to your teen. While you might need to help him prioritize (see point 2), you can and should still take it seriously and include his girlfriend when you can so your son knows what’s important to him is also important to you.
4. It’s easy.
Lots of parents of teens feel like dating is just part of what it means to be a teen and assume their kids will figure it out just like we did. Many of us had parents who were too distracted to involve themselves or they didn’t feel equipped to help us, and we did fine. But needless to say, just because we kinda figured it out doesn’t mean that’s a solid model. Dating is tricky. Our culture has an angle that it pushes, our kids have their own imagination of what it can and should be, and social media makes it all so dang challenging. Sure, you might feel like you’re in over your head as well, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to say. Your teen needs your wisdom to navigate the challenges of dating. Stay engaged and pay attention.
5. It’s urgent.
Some parents are concerned that if their child doesn’t date in high school, he or she is behind the curve. That’s bogus. Increasingly, men and women don’t meet their spouses until their mid to late 20s (of course there are exceptions). That’s not anecdotal—that’s statistics. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned in dating in high school, but it certainly isn’t critical for your teen to date. Give your teen the freedom to come at dating slowly. Don’t be anxious, worrying about the potential that he or she might die alone. If you’re afraid of that, it’s probably more about your stuff than your kid’s. Deal with your demons, but don’t project them onto your teens. Allow them to move at their own pace.
Sound off: What other distorted messages do we send our teens about dating?
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your teens and ask, “How do you think I feel about you dating?”