By Jaime Jo Wright, Crosswalk.com
It’s that horrifying moment as a parent when, amidst the already challenging years of your teen, they introduce you to … dun, dun, dun ... their new significant other. That’s right. Dating. Dating adds a whole other dynamic to the parent/teen relationship and adds about five thousand more items to your list of things to worry about. Maybe you were expecting it, or maybe you weren’t. Perhaps they waited until the age you identified as “dating is now allowed,” or perhaps you’ve uncovered a secret relationship you knew nothing about. Or, there’s the chance they’re dating a great person, or a concerning chance that you need to go old-school and chase the new love interest down the driveway with, at least, a Nerf gun.
How Do You Help Your Teen Navigate Dating?
Yes. Re-read the question simply because it may have already made you bristle. “Help your teen”? What about the whole “Ban your teen from dating” thing? In a world where they listened with the utmost respect, that might be applicable. But I propose an alternative idea to the laying down of the law. Bear with me.
Discuss What Dating Is and Isn’t
Instead of simply banning dating until the age of sixteen—or whatever you determine to be the right age—take the time to discuss the ins and outs of what dating is. What is its purpose? Does your teen even know? Think about it. Often, dating has less to do with relationship than it does with identity. There’s a sense of belonging as a teen when you have that significant other. And amidst sexual tensions, peer pressure to just have a significant other, and even elements of same-sex dating pressure, your kid might be navigating totally blind. Unless you help them.
After being in youth ministry for almost twenty years, too often I saw the rules laid out sans a relational explanation with the teenager. Rules are rules, and yes, they are designed in most cases to protect. But if the kid has not been brought into the center of the decision, how are they to respect it as anything but parental ignorance? If you’re blessed, your kid will honor it, if not understand it. At worst, they will completely rebel and do what they want anyway.
It’s time to share your heart with them. Share your morals, your beliefs, and your reasoning. Be cautious of underestimating the reasoning power of your teenager. They are sharp-minded, and especially in today’s culture, they don’t accept something just because it’s the “right thing to do.” They want to understand not only why but how that conclusion was reached. Evidence to back up a claim. As a parent, if you state that dating before the age of sixteen is not allowed, be prepared to discuss why you reached that conclusion. Or the teenager will ask the same thing I, as a youth leader, asked a parent once. “What’s so magical about the age of sixteen suddenly being mature enough to date”?
This leads me to the next point ...
Consider Not Setting an Age Limit
I know, this sounds scary and downright counter-intuitive to how many parents do it. But let’s consider maturity. My daughter, who is eleven, asked me the other day how old she had to be to date? She even threw out the age of sixteen, merely because it’s the rules made for most of her friends. I asked her why she felt sixteen was the best age. She shrugged. She didn’t know; it was just what was done.
My response was a question. “What about, instead of setting a specific age, we work together through the dating thing?” She stared at me like I’d lost my mind. Maybe I had. But I continued. “So, let’s say you want to date a boy when you’re fourteen. What if, after Dad and I meet him, we’re impressed with how mature he is and how devoted he is to his faith? Or what if, when you’re sixteen, you want to date a guy we think is very immature and untrustworthy? Is it better to date at fourteen, or at sixteen?” Her response was, “probably neither. Fourteen is still pretty young, and there’s a lot I don’t know, and sixteen doesn’t matter ‘cause the guy isn’t good for me.”
I wanted to bust out the confetti. She was reasoning out the dating thing on her own through discussion, logic, and even some self-awareness. It wasn’t me telling her that at sixteen, she could date. That might be the setup for the worst relationship I could give my daughter the green light for. On the flip side, if she’s interested in a guy at the age of fourteen, I do want her to come and ask me. So we can talk about it. Open up the lines of communication.
Am I simplifying it? Maybe. But let’s move on to the next point.
Get to Know Your Teenager’s Love Interest
If you’re already making a point to do this, then that’s awesome. But I’m surprised how many parents remove themselves from getting to know the person their teenager is interested in. Granted, some teenagers will keep the parent at an arm’s length, and that’s a legitimate issue in and of itself. However, I’ve experienced that many teenagers are willing—even if reluctantly—to let their parents interact with their boy/girlfriend.
For example, one teenager in my youth group had a parent who invited the new boyfriend over to the house as soon as they found out their daughter was dating him. On the side, they admitted to me they weren’t particularly pleased with their daughter’s choice, but they wanted to give the guy a chance. He came over, they had a cookout, played a board game, and he went home. The daughter was more at ease with her new boyfriend in front of her parent now that he’d been brought into the family for an evening without censure. The parent was a little bit less panicky, though their opinion hadn’t changed that much. The interesting thing in this scenario is that the daughter continued to bring her boyfriend home, because home had proven to be a safe place for them without the parent berating, judging, or setting black and white ultimatums that only resulted in anger. More interesting was that the relationship was short-lived. What teenagers also don’t understand is that deep down—sometimes way deep down— their loyalties are with their parents. If things aren’t cliquing in a safe environment, it becomes less desirable.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Navigating dating with your teenager isn’t always this simple. Breaking it down to the three ways is over-simplifying it in some ways. Still, think about each one in the context of their depth. Let’s shorten it even more:
- Discuss Dating
- Eliminate Age Limits
- Spend Time With Them
The key to a healthy teenager in a healthy relationship is an invested parent. To be invested, you have to care. To care, you have to show love and compassion alongside accountability and discretion. There very well may be the time for laying down the law. It might be necessary. But consider the trust you instill in your child when you don’t insinuate that you’re assuming they will do something wrong by setting hardcore, unbendable rules. Start out by showing them trust. Communicate. Invest. Go for hardcore later if your teenager is running for a cliff and about to fall off.
One of the hardest things as a parent is to trust our child, but also the Lord. Consider the Scripture from Proverbs 3, “trust in the Lord with all your heart . . . lean not on your own understanding”. Frankly put, we’re navigating this dating scene right next to our child, and our understanding could be completely erroneous. We need to go before the Lord and ask for His understanding of each situation. When we can bring our teenager into that circle of prayer and desire to seek the Lord’s guidance, then we’ve really struck gold- especially if our teenager responds positively. Now, not only are they communicating with us, but they have included God in the midst of their dating. That invites a whole other set of wisdom far beyond our own. It might even mean you’ll be able to go to sleep before your kid gets home by curfew. Trust is a key fact. Communication is prime. Understanding is everything. You were a teen once. Don’t forget that. In remembering that, be cautious you also don’t jump to overprotecting and smothering, or worse, expecting your children to make the same mistakes and therefore imprison them because of your fear.
Remind me I said all this in a few years when my fourteen-year-old daughter comes to me with a new boyfriend and I have to swallow my terror and parent for another day.
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Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. The Christy Award-Winning author of “The House on Foster Hill”, Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing suspenseful mysteries stained with history's secrets. Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com!