Dating dilemma - When to let kids start dating?
This story was first published in The Saturday Daily Telegraph.
For parents it can be the stuff of nightmares: when is their child old enough to date? And there is no ‘right’ answer to guide anxious mums and dads. Instead experts agree that maturity, not age, is the critical factor ruling when dating is healthy for young teens.
But with the window of childhood shrinking – one British study found pressure to ‘grow up’ means childhood now ends at age 12 – extending friendships as long as possible is recommended instead of rushing into the emotional turmoil of relationships and heartbreak.
The Youth Wellbeing Project sexologist Liz Walker says internet exposure, peers, magazines and even highly sexualised music clips pressure children to mimic adult behaviour.
“I think unfortunately a lot of relationships are starting much younger,’’ she says. “There are so many pressures on kids they think that is the done thing. I don’t know if there is an age that is ideal – really you are looking at maturity.’’
Canadian research into child daters found those who wait until their mid-teen years to begin a romance had no social or emotional difficulties as a result of dating. In contrast, boys and girls who began dating at 11 were twice as likely to have unsafe sex and to drink alcohol.
Kids need guidance through their first relationships
Data from Kids Helpline shows relationship problems are the fifth most common issue for young people calling the counselling service. Children aged 10 to 14 make up 25 percent of young people calling the service, with most 15 years and older, centre supervisor Leo Hede says.
“Our respectful relationship page was accessed 900 times by young people,” Mr Hede says. “They are accessing this information and it is still a significant issue. Within that group of dating and partner relationship concerns, the most common issue that young people contact us about is relationship breakdown, so that pointy end when things go wrong.
“When we are hearing these calls, that emotional intensity in the young people means you have to remind yourself that this is the most intense emotion that young person has probably ever felt. That heartbreak and that hurt. They don’t have the frame of reference (to heartache) that older people do.’’
Have healthy conversations – and be ready to pick up the pieces
Ms Walker says broken hearts can have a major impact on schooling. “It can impact on how well they are able to focus. We know kids learn better when they are emotionally healthy. If their emotions are in turmoil over a relationship or loss, then there is not that balance,” she says.
She believes parents should have healthy conversations about relationships and keep an open conversation going. “That way, down the line, if they do have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they won’t feel they have to do it under the radar.
“The important thing to come back to is the foundation of healthy boundaries in relationships: knowing what is a good basis for a relationship, respect and value for each other. I would encourage young teenagers to stick to friendships as long as possible. There are so many pressures (on them) already.’’
Mr Hede says parents should pick up the pieces if young relationships fail.
“I think they should acknowledge how important it (the relationship) is for the young people,’’ he says. “Don’t downplay the significance of the emotional impact because they don’t have that frame of reference. They haven’t been through many breakups and they don’t know they will bounce back.
“It could be the first time they have had their hearts broken and it is hugely significant for them. Parents need to be respectful of that and support them rather than being simplistic and saying ‘you will get over it’ or ‘plenty more fish in the sea’.
“Parents should remind themselves of what it is like to be a 13 year old who thinks they are in love, or who has had their heart broken.’’
Looking to parental behaviour was also important for children understanding respectful and balanced relationships, he says. “They learn so much from the way parents interact within a relationship,’’ Mr Hede says.
Life with teenage daughters – humour helps a lot
By mother of two, Robyn Willis
“My teenage daughters go to a co-ed high school so there’s not a lot of mystique about the opposite sex. As they’ve got older and the boys they share classes with have matured, they’ve become more attracted (to them) but they’ve also formed some close friendships with some of them.
“We don’t have any hard or fast rules about when they can start dating but I try to know who they are spending time with and what names keep coming up.
“We’ve had a few conversations about relationships, sex and some of the risks, which has been awkward at times. I find humour helps a lot. Stories about my early dating experiences with their dad never fail to raise a laugh.”
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This article was written by Lisa Power for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz