Is your teenager ready to date?

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The teenage dating game


Teenage dating can mean different things to different people. Old-school moms and dads might think dating means a formal courtship, while teens might just want a companion of the opposite sex. Does it mean a boy and a girl going to the movies alone? Does it mean someone to hold hands with in the hallways? Does it mean two people involved in an exclusive romantic relationship? Parents and teens should make sure they are using the same language when it comes to dating, so they know what to expect, says Princess Fralin, adjunct instructor and program developer for the TEACH institute at Anne Arundel Community College, which educates childcare providers. Fralin regularly teaches parents of teens how to deal with various issues, including dating.


"Dating has so many meanings," says Fralin, who is experiencing the dating issue with her 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. "It means different things to different families."


In most cases today the word "dating" probably isn't used by teens. Instead they might talk about "going out" with another person. Today's teens don't regularly go on traditional one-on-one dates, says Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist and author of "Start Talking: A Girls' Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex or Whatever." Teens prefer group outings with friends, even if they are "with" their boyfriend or girlfriend.


"Most kids right now aren't dating. They like going out in groups," Rapini says.


It is the parents' job to figure out exactly what dating means to their family and whether their child is ready.
Let it begin


There is not a perfect age to start dating. Dating should depend on the maturity of the child, says Karen Katrinic, a family therapist based in Chester. And, children mature at different rates. Every experience in their lives prepares children for the next stage and some may be ready to handle dating sooner than others.


According to Katrinic, a child might be ready to start dating if: the child functions well in school and at home, handles group activities well and shows responsibility. Children should also be able to prioritize and understand that family and school obligations come before romantic relationships. With that in mind, Katrinic says teens between 14 and 16 might be ready to date.


Lainey Goss of Severna Park says her daughter, Brianna, began going out with boys last year when she was 13, and there haven't been any problems.


"It depends on how responsible she is in school and with her choices and everything she does," Goss says. "She's been very responsible so far, and she's made responsible choices with friends, so I think it's OK."


The Rules of teenage dating


Though Goss allows Brianna to date, there are certain expectations. Brianna is never allowed to be alone with a boy, and Goss must always meet the boy's parents first.


"We need to understand the boundaries at each home," Goss explains.


Fralin agrees this is a great idea, and advises parents to set expectations before giving their children the go-ahead to start dating. Fralin admits she's pretty "old-school" in her beliefs. Though she doesn't want her children becoming involved in exclusive dating relationships, Fralin says they are allowed to go on dates to dances or to the movies, especially if other friends are along. Not every parent will be quite as strict as Fralin, but most experts agree that young teens should not be alone with the opposite sex, and parents should be clear about curfews, as well as other guidelines for dating.
Goss doesn't allow texting or talking on the phone late at night, and Brianna isn't allowed to go out on weeknights. "I think dating is OK as long as there's supervision and rules," Goss says.


Setting rules is important, but it's also important to explain the rules and start a deeper conversation about relationships, and yes, sex.


The Talk


"The talk" is undoubtedly dreaded by most parents, and avoided by some. Experts say, however, it's a necessary discussion.


"Parents should definitely talk to their child. They need to establish the importance of being there and listening and supporting their child no matter what," Fralin says.


Jennifer Healy's 14-year-old daughter Savannah sometimes thinks she's crazy. Unlike Savannah's friends' moms, Healy is completely open about sex and relationships. Growing up, Healy never had "the talk" with her mom, but she wishes she had. So, Healy made sure to communicate openly with her daughter about sex.


"We talk about everything. I tell her when you get to the point where you want to have sex, I'd like you to tell me. I'd like to make sure there's preventive measures that are occurring. I don't want you to do something stupid then come and tell me," Healy says. "It's a very uncomfortable conversation to have, but I just look at my own life and I would have rather had that conversation with my mom than sneaking around and doing things."


Fralin strongly agrees the key is communication. She doesn't want her children involved in serious relationships in high school, but that doesn't mean she thinks sex is bad.

"When I grew up everything was bad. Sex was bad. Touching was bad. That's not true. It's not bad. It needs to be in the proper setting," Fralin says. "It's all about fostering a relationship with your child."

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