It’s finally happened. Your teenager has ventured into the world of teen dating, and you’re unsure of where to draw the line as a parent. You probably have a wealth of personal knowledge on how to avoid heartbreak, set personal boundaries, and spot red flags in a relationship, but how do you share all this information with your teenager without pushing them away or making things awkward? You want the best for your child but sometimes it’s hard to impart this information as a parent.
Navigating these waters can certainly be difficult. However, by understanding the reality of modern teen dating, educating your teen about appropriate relationship practices, communicating openly about “awkward” topics like sex, and setting proper boundaries, you can ensure your teen has a safe, positive dating experience! And, more importantly, you’ll make sure they know that they can look to you for dating and relationship advice in the future, rather than turning to less reliable sources like their friends or social media.
If this seems like a lot, don’t worry! I’ve broken down all the stats and need-to-know teen dating facts in this article. I’ve also provided easily applicable approaches you can use in your own home! Without further ado, here is the comprehensive parent’s guide to teen dating.
Modern Teen Dating: The Situation At Hand
Teen dating in the 21st Century is wildly different than what many parents remember. If you went to high school in the 80s or 90s, many of the social tools of modern teens didn’t exist yet! Social media and smartphones have revolutionized the way teens interact. Parents who want to be involved in their teen’s dating life need to understand how kids today are flirting, showing affection, and growing closer within virtual spaces. Here are the facts.
Kids Meet in Person
Many parents will be relieved by this. According to a 2015 study on teen dating conducted by the Pew Research Center, only about 8% of teenagers in the United States date somebody they first meet online. This means, on average, your teenager is safe from encountering strangers and predators on dating apps—along with other potentially risky situations. Still, there are a number of dating apps that cater to teenagers all parents should be wary of.
While these numbers are relatively low, if you believe your teenager is using these apps, it’s important to have a conversation with them about the potential dangers of online teen dating. Don’t get angry—doing so might spur your teen to rebel and double down in their online efforts. Instead, foster an open conversation. Ask why they downloaded the app, what they’re hoping to gain from it, and express your concerns. Every parent will handle this situation differently, but it’s important for your teenager to feel like they can talk to you about these kinds of things without feeling embarrassed or fearing punishment.
But They Don’t Pass Notes
While teen dating doesn’t necessarily start online, it certainly develops there.
According to the same teen dating study from Pew Research, about half of all teenagers express interest in someone by liking, commenting, or messaging directly on social media. Further, teens in the study admitted following and interacting with their significant other on social media made them feel both more emotionally involved and personally connected in their relationship. A large number of teens—47 percent—even said they see social media as a prime place for displaying how much they care about their partner.
So what does this mean? It means when your daughter thinks a boy is cute, she isn’t going to get his attention during math class. More likely, she’s going to tag him in a funny meme, comment with a heart-eye emoji on his photos, DM (direct message) him, or reply to his “story.” As a parent trying to understand teen dating, it behooves you to recognize the fact that teens today express their emotions differently, and it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with top social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.
Teen dating has moved online. While teens still often establish chemistry in person, much of their affection is now shown in an online space for everyone to see. Virtual spaces play a massive part in modern teen dating, and parents need to understand that while the game hasn’t changed, the playing ground certainly has.
Now that you’ve got a better idea of how teens are showing affection and establishing their relationships, it’s time to dive in to one of the trickier aspects of teen dating, one that many parents need help approaching: sex.
The Truth About Teenage Sex
Before we talk about strategies for approaching sex and teen dating, we need to set the record straight. Without taking a realistic approach to sex, parents are essentially going in blindfolded. Rather than stay in the dark, we need to face the facts. And the fact is:
Teens have sex.
It’s impossible for you to control your teenager entirely, and there’s a chance they’re going to have sex—whether you know about it or not. In fact, according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 41% of high school students report having sexual intercourse, and most sexually active teens—70% for girls and 56% for boys—only have sex once they’ve already been dating for some time. When it comes to teen dating, sex isn’t usually about hooking up or a status move, but about expressing intimacy with a person they care about. Much as it is for adults.
While you can try your hardest to keep your teen from having sex, there’s still a chance your teen won’t listen. So, rather than mandating abstinence (which will likely come off as old school and perhaps even make your teen want to have sex more), it’s better to have open, informative conversations with your teen surrounding sex, teen dating, and everything that comes with it. Here’s the most important ground to cover!
How to Practice Safe Sex
This is one of the most crucial jobs you have as your child enters the world of teen dating. Many teenagers are oblivious to the potential dangers of sex and think of pregnancy as the only possible negative outcome. But, realistically, STIs are a much more frequent downside of teenage sex. In fact, about half of all STI cases each year—a number around 10 million—are found in people between the ages of 15 and 24. These include infections like chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, and even things as serious as HIV.
You can’t always prevent sex in teen dating, but you can keep your teen safe and healthy. Make sure your teen knows the risks of STIs and take proper preventative measures. Stress the importance of wearing a condom and talking to their doctor about getting tested for STIs at appropriate intervals, like if they change sexual partners or experience symptoms.
Encourage Birth Control
Teenagers aren’t particularly known for long-term planning, and impulsive decisions when it comes to teen dating they might completely block out the most basic risk: pregnancy. This is another important point for parents to make when they approach teen dating and sex.
If your teen is having sex—and even if they aren’t—it’s important for you to teach them the pros and cons of several kinds of birth control. Condoms are by far the most common contraceptive, but they still have an 18% failure rate when it comes to preventing pregnancy. While condoms are a good baseline for preventing pregnancy and STIs during teen dating, there are more effective contraceptives. Talk to your teen and their doctor about potential strategies for preventing pregnancy, such as birth control, IUDs, or contraceptive patches.
Beware of Sexting
“Sexting,” or sharing sexually explicit messages and images via text, has become a common practice in teen dating. According to JAMA Pediatrics, about 15% of teens will send a sext at some point, and around 12% of all sexts will be forwarded to other recipients without the sender’s permission.
But don’t panic! Rather than become overly suspicious of your teen’s online behavior, make sure they understand the dangers and repercussions of sexting. It’s often hard to make teens see the big picture when they are excited about teen dating, so be very clear about how “private” photographs often make it past their intended recipient.
Let’s Talk About It
Social media, sexting, birth control, STIs, intercourse… these might seem like scary topics to you as a parent, but they’re things you need to discuss with your teen. If you’re nervous or unsure how to broach these touchy subjects, don’t worry! Most parents are, and I’m here to help. Here are the best ways to set boundaries and have open conversations about teen dating, sex, and relationships.
Talk About Relationships, Not Just Sex
Contrary to popular belief, in the world of teen dating, sex is only a small part of the equation. Teens in relationships might have sex—and need to be educated about its realities—but there are other important topics to cover. What does a healthy relationship look like? What should your teen expect from their partner? What boundaries should your teen set with their significant other?
Teen dating sets the bar for your child’s future romantic life, so you want to be sure they know what’s appropriate and healthy in a relationship early on. You don’t want your teen to feel pressured by their significant other, and they need to learn to stand up for themselves in a relationship. Often, important conversations like this provide great segues into more “awkward” talks like sex and STIs. Starting with relationship talks is a great way to approach sex in teen dating. After all, sex is only part of the larger picture!
Ask the Right Questions—and Listen!
High schoolers make rash decisions, even when it comes to things as serious as sex and teen dating. Often times, this is because teens think they know more than they really do (it’s called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth), but if you ask the right questions, they might realize just how little they know and be more open to your advice!
For instance, does your teen know the stats behind STIs? Do they know how many of their peers are actually having sex, and how many engage in habits like sexting? Your teen likely thinks the numbers are much higher than they really are! Ask them to explain what they know—or what they don’t know.
Asking questions is also a great way to gauge your teen’s capacity for teen dating. Do you know how they met their significant other? What do they like about them? What do they do while they’re together? What common interests do they have? Asking questions like this, and listening to your teen’s responses instead of interrupting with unsolicited advice, will make your teen feel like you truly care about and accept their relationship. This is a key component in my next piece of teen dating advice, which is perhaps the most important one…
Encourage Honesty and Set Boundaries
This is the big one. If you want to be actively involved in your teen’s dating life, you need to make sure they feel comfortable sharing intimate details with you. If your teen fears getting in trouble or being judged by you for their choices, they’re going to sneak around behind your back and engage in risky behaviors (like sex, sexting, etc.) without you knowing about it. This is the last thing any parent wants. So, what can you do to stop it?
Let your teen know you’re on their side. Early on, establish an attitude of trust when it comes to teen dating. Rather than threatening your teen with punishments or relying on scare tactics to enforce your dating rules (which won’t work), explain that you have expectations, but you understand they might be hard to follow. Let your teen know you want them to come to you with any questions they have about sex, relationships, and teen dating. It might be awkward to start, and your teen might not have questions right away, but knowing they can come to you will prove invaluable down the line.
It’s also vital to set boundaries with teen dating. Discuss what you are and aren’t comfortable with as a parent, and what actions will and won’t receive consequences. If your teenager has their boyfriend or girlfriend over at the house, maybe let them be in your child’s room together, but leave the door open. You might allow late-night dates, but set a curfew. It’s a good idea to have a pre-set policy for what happens if these rules are violated. Also, having your teen explain the teen dating rules back to you will likely help them empathize and accept the consequences more readily. Establishing this trust and setting these boundaries will take time, but the most important thing is for you to approach teen dating life with a sense of empathy.
There you have it! The all-encompassing guide to teen dating. It’s a lot of information to take in, so here’s a quick recap of the most important points:
- Modern teens show affection online just as much as in-person
- Sex, STIs, sexting, and contraceptives are things parents need to address realistically
- Asking teens questions will help them accept advice on teen dating
- Relationship advice is just as important as sex advice
- Parents must establish trust and boundaries when it comes to their teen’s dating life
Remember, teen dating is something you should embrace, not fear. Emotional intimacy is one of life’s great gifts, and can seriously benefit your teen and make their life better. Be the person your child wants to talk to.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you feel more comfortable entering the world of teen dating! With the proper guidance from you—their parent—your teen can reap all the benefits of a positive, happy relationship!