Love at first sight

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Your teenager’s first date can actually be fun for them and less stressful for you if you have this conversation first.

Your teenager’s first date shouldn’t be anxiety-ridden

Australia doesn’t have much of a dating culture. Our kids aren’t usually asking someone on a date, going out as a couple, and then dating someone different next week. Instead, it’s more…

Yr 7 boy:           Go tell Jasmine I like her and see if she’ll go out with me

His mate:         Hi Jasmine. Josh likes you. Will you go out with him?

And then they sit together at lunch time. Maybe they hold hands when they walk home from school. And the relationship progresses (or doesn’t) over time.

We tend to see teens with boyfriends or girlfriends. But dating… not so much. When they’re older, they start “hanging out”. But ask them if it’s a date? No way.

Regardless, spending time with romantic interests (which we’ll loosely call dating) is an exhilarating, frightening part of adolescent development. It’s fraught with anxiety and filled with thrills. For us parents, well, it may weigh a bit heavier on the anxiety side.

Having someone you’re crushing on willing to reciprocate your “liking” has the potential to be meaningful and positive for well-being.

Moving the relationship to actual dating establishes confidence, helps teens learn consideration for others and teaches the art of conversation. It’s also an introduction to the world of intimacy, relationship roles, romantic love and even sex. Best of all, this is happening while they’re still young and in the safety of your home.

The conversation to have before your child’s first date

So, what should we be saying to our kids before we shove them out into the wide world of dating?

Not yet!

Yep. That’s probably the first thing we should be saying. Yes, dating is fun, but not yet. In fact, hold off as long as you can. I know it’s possible I might lose some of you right here, but I discourage dating until the age of 15 or 16 (for one-on-one dates).

I know what you’re thinking. As if.

But this is what I recommend with six daughters of my own. I do live in the real world! Holding them off until 15 sounds hard, especially as some teens are asking to go out on dates from the age of about 12. But research shows that kids who wait until their mid-teen years to begin dating had no social or emotional difficulties from that relationship. On the other hand, those who began dating at 11 were twice as likely to have unsafe sex and to drink alcohol. Waiting for dating is worth it.

Consent and Courage

Once you and your teen do decide it’s time to date, it’s imperative that you talk to them about two key messages – consent and courage.

ConsentResearch tells us that most teens have an overly simplistic understanding of consent when it comes to any kind of physical intimacy. Our teens see consent as a simple yes or no, but often ignore more nuanced signals and cues.

Our teens (both boys and girls) must understand that while it’s exciting to hold hands or kiss, they don’t do it without consent. It’s non-negotiable. This doesn’t mean they have to say, ‘Is it OK if I kiss you?’ But it sure helps if they do. They must have a clear indication from the other person that it is OK.

Courage. Not every teen is being taught the same things when it comes to consent. It’s possible that your teen’s date might want to be more intimate than your child is comfortable with. Our children must be taught to have the courage to say no.

As a side note, part of respect is being courteous to the other person’s parents. Talk to your teen about following any rules that you have as a family, especially regarding alcohol use and hanging out in bedrooms, for example.

Know details

Now that the big conversations are over, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. When your teen is heading out on a date, discuss the details. Where are you going? What will you be doing? How can I contact you? And, when will you be home? These are all important things to have settled before your teen heads out the door. Failure to ask these questions is a failure to protect or show you care. Ask the questions. It matters.

Forget the Hollywood narrative

Society (movies, media and friends) teaches our teens to believe that dating and romance is meant to go a certain way. This started with Romeo and Juliet, but continues in so many of today’s teen rom coms. Tell your teens to throw that script out.

This is the time to focus on friendship and relationship building rather than the dramas that are part of blockbusters.

I’ll be there

Let your teen know that if they need you (for any reason) you’ll be there. They only have to call. You might have a signal that indicates they need help. A text that says “Love You. X.” for example, could be a cue that you should call and check in.

Have fun!

Most importantly, tell your teen to have fun! After all, dating is fun!

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Dr Justin Coulson
Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s leading experts in the areas of parenting, relationships and wellbeing. He is an international speaker, podcaster, and author of three books including 21 Days to a Happier Family (Harper Collins, 2016) and 9 Ways to a Resilient Child (Harper Collins, 2017). He and his wife Kylie are the parents of six daughters. When he is not spending time with his family he can be found doing TV and radio appearances as well travelling around the country delivering talks and workshops at schools and organisations helping parents, students and staff improve their personal and professional relationships.