Creating an open line of communication, which can involve uncomfortable but important conversations, is key when your teenager becomes more social.
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Ah, the simple days of teenage dating. Well, yours may have been years ago, and things have changed. There is far more technology, including text messages, social media, and dating apps. (Remember when you'd have to wait at home all night for a phone call from your crush?) And as a parent, if you haven't used all of the available tech out there, it can be confusing and worrisome. There's also a pandemic going on, complicating almost every part of our lives.

Dating can help your teenager make friends and feel more comfortable about their sexual orientation and identity. Although they might act like they're all grown up, you should monitor what's going on. Having an open line of communication is important for both of you. When you start to notice your teen becoming more social, or maybe they mention someone, they're interested in, it's time to start having these important discussions. Here's a guide to help parents tackle the complex world of teen dating.

happy teen couple outside in school yard
Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

1. Acknowledge the New Stage

This is new territory for you as a parent and your child as they grow. Stating that is essential, says Joani Geltman, author of A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens ($10, Amazon). "It's an important statement to put out because parents don't have to know everything about what to do and what to say," she explains. You work through it together. And parents need to get used to the idea of seeing their kids in a different light."

2. Collaborate to Set the Rules

Like many elements of parenting, when and who your child wants to date isn't within your control. So don't make grandiose statements like, "You can't date until you are 16," because you may not be able to enforce it. You'll probably meet resistance and lies. Chances are you've already negotiated curfews with your son or daughter when they've gone out with friends. Similarly, set rules (and consequences) early on for dating activities. "Especially with older teens, let them talk first," Geltman says as you discuss possible rules.

"Ask them what their expectations of you as a parent are and what they think the rules should be." Then you can come to a mutual agreement about expectations and cut down on future arguments. "Kids may say it's none of your business," Geltman adds. "Remind them you understand that they don't want to share what's private in their relationship, but that you do have to agree on the expectations, and that is your business."

3. Just Keep Talking

Check in with your teen regularly. This is not a one-and-done conversation. Let them know if they ever have any questions or concerns, they can always turn to you for support or advice. "You are opening the conversation to help guide them as opposed to making a judgment about their choices," Geltman says. "You have the influence to help them understand things they aren't talking about with anyone else." Remind them that if they're not comfortable speaking with you, there are other trusted resources at their fingertips, such as your child's pediatrician or family doctor. And remember to use gender-neutral language when you're talking about dating.

4. Address Social Media Usage

You probably spent hours talking on the phone with a high school boyfriend or girlfriend. Now, with social media, you'll need to monitor technology usage. Although it can be a tool to connect with others, it can also be a platform used to make poor choices. "You have to talk to them about sexual safety, especially online. Because this is the first generation to have such access to media. Checking on their online activity is about ensuring their emotional safety," Geltman says.

Talk to your teen about the potential consequences of inappropriate texting, social media, and dating app behaviors. Let them know that even if a photo or message is supposed to disappear after it's been viewed, a recipient could easily take a screenshot and circulate it. Remind them that taking suggestive or nude photos of themselves or others or simply receiving them can have legal implications. Reinforce that just as they don't want you knowing every detail of their personal relationship, they shouldn't feel a need to let their friends on TikTok, Snapchat, or Insta in on every detail either. Help them understand the rules around online relationships and online dating, acknowledging that it can lead to a false sense of intimacy.

5. Always Meet and Greet

Find comfortable opportunities to meet the person dating your son or daughter. Even if you've known the person your teen has been dating for years, invite them to come in and chat with you about plans before heading out: where they'll be going, curfew times, and driving rules. It will help you become better acquainted with the teen your son or daughter is spending time with, and it will underscore that you care.

6. Consider Age and Encourage Group Dates

Though it isn't a fail-safe measure, encouraging your child to date someone of the same age can help prevent risky behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, teenage girls tend to have their first sexual experience with male partners who are three or more years older. For teenage boys, their first sexual encounter is likely to be with girls who are less than a year older. Be willing to talk about this with your teen. You can also suggest your teen start out with group dates. Double dates can not only be double the fun, but they can provide a helpful and safe partner, should one of them experience a difficult or uncomfortable situation while on the date.

7. Talk About Consent

Speaking of uncomfortable situations, this is a topic you must address. "These conversations are not so much about the birds and the bees these days. It's more about boundaries," Geltman says. "Consent is not the kind of topic they are going to talk about with their friends, so the only place to get these messages is from you as their parent."

Make sure your teen knows they should never assume they know what their partner is thinking. When in doubt, they should ask. Help them understand how to set boundaries and acknowledge the boundaries of others. Talk with them about what healthy relationships look like and let them know that being manipulated, put down verbally, physically assaulted, or isolated from other friends and family relationships are all signs of an unhealthy relationship. Let them know that if they find this happening to them, they need to reach out to you or another trusted adult, like a teacher or school counselor, for help.

It's also important to teach your teen to recognize manipulative language and reject lines such as, "If you really love me, you'll do this for me," or, "You know we both want to, so don't act like you don't." This type of language can pressure an individual to engage in activities they aren't ready for or know are wrong. Set up a rule that if your child finds him or herself in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation and needs your help, you'll pick them up.


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