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I’ve met someone special: Talking with teens about dating

Remember the first time you fell in love? It was all you could think about and you thought it would last forever. Combine that with what you know about all the physical and emotional changes your teen is going through. Now it’s easy to see why teen relationships can become so intense so quickly.

Learning from the good and bad

Dating can affect a teen in both positive and negative ways. Teens can learn from both the good and the bad. Dating can help build self-esteem, help teens discover who they are, and help build social and relationship skills. Learning how to be part of a healthy relationship is an important skill to develop.

Parents should try to help teens understand that healthy relationships are based on several factors, including  respect, honesty, fidelity (faithfulness), good communication and the absence of violence. Dating can help teens learn what goes into a healthy relationship.

But dating has a negative side, too. It can also hurt a teen’s self-esteem. It can reinforce stereotypical gender roles. Or it can give a teen unrealistic expectations about relationships.

Teens mature physically long before they fully mature socially and understand adult issues. Those include the emotions involved in an intimate relationship. This is why parents should be ready to help teens set guidelines on when they are ready to date. They also should help teens understand when a relationship is getting too intense or unhealthy.

When are teens ready to date?

When a teen is ready to date is a question each family must answer based on their own values.

On average, girls begin dating when they're 12 1/2 and boys begin dating at age 13 1/2. But keep in mind that dating at this age occurs in mixed-gender (coed) groups. As a result, where young people spend just as much time interacting with friends as they do with their “date.”

Interest in dating usually develops in stages. Teens often move from same-gender groups to coed groups to one-on-one relationships. Many parents and professionals recommend teens wait until they are 16 years old to begin single dating. This guideline can vary by teen and by community.

Although these first dating relationships typically do not last, do not dismiss them as unimportant. When teens have the freedom to move in and out of relationships, they learn more about themselves and others. These relationships can be intense and cause emotional upset when a break up occurs. Your child may need reassurance if this happens.

These relationships are really important in the moment to your teen.

Setting rules for teen dating

Dating is a new experience for teens. And it's a new experience for parents to see their children dating. Here are some guidelines to help parents set rules about dating:

  • Know who your teen is dating.
  • Know where your teen is going on a date and the couple's plans. Don’t jump to conclusions about what dating means for your teen. Early dating often means spending time with a group of friends, not spending time one-on-one.  It may also mean mainly texting and having other online interactions.
  • Set guidelines on where, when, and how often your teen goes on a date.
  • Keep in mind that there is a fine line between interest and intrusion. Many teens talk with their parents about their feelings, but a parent should not press or demand that a teen tell every detail of every date. That is intrusion.

Setting teen curfews

Whose job is it to decide what time a teen should be home from a date: the city’s, the parent’s, or the teen’s?

The short answer is all of the above. Many cities have their own curfews for how late teens can be out. This information is often available online. For example, in Hennepin County, depending on age, the curfew ranges from 9 p.m. to midnight (see Hennepin County: Curfew). Families should also set their own curfew rules that take into consideration what a teen is doing, who's with him or her, and where he or she is going.

When it comes to curfews, keep these points in mind:

  • Teens do want limits. Boundaries are reassuring because they show you care.
  • Curfews should be set only after considering many things: How much sleep does your teen need? What other responsibilities does your teen have? What are typical curfews for their friends? Are these reasonable in your view?  What are they doing when they’re out? Don’t set a 10pm curfew if the movie they’re seeing doesn’t end until 10:30.
  • Involve your teen in making decisions about curfew, including consequences for missing it.
  • Let your teen know that abiding by a curfew shows responsibility and maturity. The more of these traits you see in your teen, the more lenient you may be in the future about curfews.

Spotting teen dating violence

Watch for warning signs of dating violence. Far too many teens are hurt in abusive and exploitive relationships. These can have life-long consequences.

Dating violence doesn’t start with a black eye on the first date. Abuse can be much more subtle and conveyed verbally rather than physically. A lot of emotional abuse, including pressure to be physically intimate, share inappropriate photos or have sex may occur before the first slap, push or grab.

Here are signs of an abusive partner:

  • Abusive partners control their partner's activities and companions.
  • Abusive partners usually show a lot of jealousy or possessiveness. Parents may notice that their teen no longer hangs out with friends.
  • Abusive partners have short tempers.
  • Abusive partners will often belittle or put down their partner.

Teens are often confused and scared when abuse or sexual assault occurs in a relationship. They aren’t sure how to tell a parent. Parents may have to ask teens directly if they have been hurt.

If teens disclose relationship abuse, believe them. Make sure teens know that abuse or sexual assault is not their fault. Contact a local sexual assault or domestic abuse program for help.

Related resources

loveisrespect — This website strives to be a safe, inclusive space for young people to access information and get help in an environment that is designed specifically for them. Free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365.

Featured Topics: ParentsThe National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — This webpage has some tips and scripts to help parents have a conversation with their 18-year kids about relationships, love, sex, and birth control.

Revised by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor in family social science.

Reviewed in 2021

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