What Age Should Parents Let Teens Date: Is 14 Too Young?
Information provided by Dr. Chelsea Hetherington, Ph.D. Chelsea is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.
“My 14-year-old daughter says she has a boyfriend – Is she too young? What should I do?”
For many parents, watching their child enter the dating world can be a time of stress and worry. How do you know if your son or daughter is the right age to start dating?
How can you balance wanting to protect your child from harm while also giving them space to explore new relationships?
We’ll deep-dive into everything you need to know about the appropriate age to start dating and how to set boundaries when your teenager starts dating without overstepping and making them hate you.
Related: Teen Dating Apps: What Parents Should Know
When Do Teens Start Dating?
If your teen has expressed an interest in dating, you might wonder around what age teens typically begin dating these days.
The American Academy of Pediatrics finds that teens tend to start dating around age 13. But even knowing this, many parents might think that a 13-year-old is too young to be dating!
Know that this is an average and that an individual teen’s experience can differ depending on their individual interest, maturity level, and development. Dating can also mean different things at different ages, as we’ll get into in the following section.
Peer pressure and social media can also play a role in influencing the age at which teens start dating, which makes it all the more important for parents to have open communication with their teens about dating and to understand the impact that dating can have on their children's emotional and social development.
By starting a conversation about dating early, parents can help their teens understand the expectations and boundaries around dating and provide them with the support they need to make informed decisions about relationships. We’ll discuss more how to have those conversations below.
What Does Dating Mean for Teens?
As a parent, if you learn that your 12-year-old is dating someone, you might be concerned that they’re engaging in inappropriate physical or romantic contact at such a young age before they’re emotionally ready.
It’s important not to panic!
Dating for teens can mean different things depending on the people involved and their ages. Dating might be spending time together at school and holding hands in the hallway, or it could be a more serious relationship.
As a parent, it's important to understand what your child means when they say they are "dating" someone. This can vary greatly depending on your teen's age and stage of development.
For younger children in elementary school, having a "first boyfriend or girlfriend" may simply mean eating lunch with someone they like. For someone in middle school, dating someone might mean that they have lunch together, hang out in group settings, or just generally enjoy spending time together.
In these cases, it's important for parents to handle the situation with a light touch and not assume the worst.
For older teens in high school, dating might be something closer to a committed romantic relationship. It's important for parents to understand the emotional and social implications of dating. This may include discussing topics such as sexual health, consent, and communication in relationships with your teen.
By having open and honest conversations with your teen about dating, you can provide them with the support and guidance they need to build healthy relationships.
Talking to Your Teen About Dating
It might feel uncomfortable, but it’s crucially important to talk to your children and teens about sex and dating. Ideally, you would begin having these conversations long before your teen is engaged in any kind of dating relationship.
Before They Start Dating
Begin having conversations about safety, consent, relationships, and respect early in a child’s life. While these conversations don’t necessarily need to revolve around dating specifically, these topics can lay the foundation for your teen to have healthy and appropriate dating relationships in adolescence and into adulthood.
Create an environment your child can feel comfortable asking questions and discussing their feelings. Provide age-appropriate information and answer questions in a non-judgmental way.
It’s especially important to emphasize the importance of respect and consent in relationships – which applies in romantic relationships and friendships.
While most children will get some kind of sex education from their schools, you can supplement and add to this by talking to your child about sex. Discuss things like the importance of protecting oneself from sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.
You can also discuss the potential emotional impacts of engaging in sexual activity and provide resources for kids to access if they have further questions or need support.
As with all conversations with your child, try not to view this as a “one-and-done” conversation to be had one time. Instead, you can broach these topics bit by bit over the course of several months or even years.
When Your Teen is in a Relationship
Once your teen has begun dating, maintain an open line of communication and respect. If a young teen says that they’re dating someone, instead of reacting with anger or fear, begin by asking them questions.
Who is this person they’re dating? How old are they? What does it mean to them to be “dating”? This can help you better understand the nature of the relationship.
When your teen begins dating having open and honest conversations can provide them with the guidance and support they need to make informed decisions and stay safe.
Here are some tips for talking to your teen about dating and sex:
- Be Open and Honest
Encourage your teen to share with you about their relationship and ask any questions they have about sex.
Allow your teen to share their thoughts and feelings about their relationship. Listen actively and try to understand their perspective.
- Offer Support and Encouragement
Encourage your teen to make informed decisions about their relationships and sex. Provide them with accurate information and support them as they navigate this new stage in their lives.
- Discuss Boundaries and Consent
It's important for parents to educate their teens about boundaries and consent in relationships. Discuss what consent means and emphasize the importance of respecting the boundaries of others.
- Address Safety Concerns
Discuss the importance of safety in relationships and sex, and provide your teen with information about how to protect themselves. You might also get your teen access to contraceptives if needed.
Setting Dating Rules Guidelines
Once you better understand your teen’s relationship, set clear rules, guidelines, and expectations. This can help provide structure and support for your teen as they navigate the challenges of dating.
When setting rules, it's important to consider the individual needs and circumstances of your teen, as well as their age and stage of development. The specific rules and expectations you set for your teen should vary depending on their individual maturity and needs, but some common rules and guidelines you may consider include:
- Curfews: Setting a curfew for your teen can help ensure their safety and well-being, especially when they are out with a romantic partner.
- Schoolwork: Dating should not interfere with your teen's education, so it's important to establish clear expectations around schoolwork and grades.
- Alone Time: Many parents establish rules that their teen and their dating partner can’t be alone in the teen’s room with the door closed. Others might set rules that the pair can go only on group dates or one-on-one dating with an adult chaperone.
- Meeting the Partner: Depending on your teen's age and stage of development, you may wish to meet their romantic partner. This can help provide a better understanding of the relationship and ensure the safety and well-being of your child. This can help build a sense of mutual trust and understanding.
- Balancing Privacy and Involvement: It's important for parents to respect their teen's privacy, while still being involved in their lives and relationships. Overstepping boundaries or being too involved in their teen's dating life can create conflict and erode trust.
By establishing clear rules and guidelines and having open and honest communication with your teen, you can help provide them with the support and structure they need to make informed decisions about relationships and to build healthy, positive relationships.
Dealing with First Breakup or Heartbreak
Breakups and heartbreak are unfortunately a normal part of dating and relationships, but they can be especially challenging for teens. As a parent, you can play an important role in supporting your teen through this difficult time.
When your teen goes through a breakup, be sure to listen and acknowledge their feelings. Let them know that it's normal to feel sad, angry, or confused after a breakup.
Let your teen talk about their feelings and thoughts, and try to understand their perspective. Encourage them to express themselves openly and honestly.
Also, encourage your teen to take care of themselves physically and emotionally during this time. This can include engaging in healthy activities like exercise, hobbies, and spending time with friends and family.
You should also try to balance supporting your teen while also giving them space. While it's important to be there for your teen, it's also important to respect their privacy and allow them space to process their feelings. Give them space to grieve and process in the way they need to.
Recognizing if Your Teen's Relationship is Unhealthy or Toxic
Much like adult relationships, teen relationships can also become unhealthy, toxic, and even abusive. An unhealthy or toxic relationship can have serious consequences, both emotionally and physically, and it's important to address the issue as soon as possible.
Parents should be on the lookout for toxic or abusive behavior in teen relationships. Some signs to look out for include:
- Controlling behavior
- Jealousy and possessiveness
- Verbal or physical abuse
- Emotional manipulation
If you suspect that your teen is in an unhealthy or toxic relationship, intervene and provide them with support. Encourage your teen to talk about their relationship, raise your concerns, and offer them resources and support to help them get out of the situation.
If you believe that your child or teen is in an abusive relationship, you aren’t alone. There is help available to you.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 800-799-7233 or via text by texting START to 88788. Organizations like loveisrespect.org offer specific resources on intimate partner violence in adolescents and young adults.
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Dr. Chelsea Hetherington (she/her) is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.