SALT LAKE CITY — The escalator to the theater at the Gateway shopping center is packed on a Saturday night with families and couples and groups of kids. On the plaza at the bottom, a small crowd has formed around two boys playing footbag and they’re whistling and stomping encouragement.
They are clearly there together, a group of young teen friends out playing. Near the back of the group, a boy and girl are holding hands, but mostly the group doesn't appear to be paired up. Girls outnumber the boys and they all seem chummy and happy.
The stages of dating — age-based and nearly as old as time itself — are all in view at this mall: A boy and girl around age 16 are walking into the movie theater, clearly together. Another pair, 18ish, are smooching in a little alcove near the parking lot entrance.
There’s a healthy progression to dating, experts say, that includes starting with group activities involving both sexes in early adolescence, then progressively narrowing down to couples as teens get older.
Kids who jump the gun, forming romantic one-on-one dating relationships young, are more likely to have problematic behaviors at school and elsewhere, according to a new study from York University in Toronto. It can increase risky sexual activity and alcohol use.
They are also less likely to have peers who can help them work through issues based on shared experience. Youths who date ahead of their peer group have a hard time talking things over with trusted peers if it gets complicated. There’s no shared experience, experts say.
Parents often find themselves in the tricky position of trying to allow children healthy distance to grow and mature while also trying to keep tabs and know when they should step in.
“It’s an important point for parents to monitor the type of relations your teens are involved in and to promote activities that bring boys and girls together in fairly structured, supervised ways,” said Jennifer Connolly, professor of psychology at York University and lead author on the study, to be published in the December Journal of Adolescence.
“All kids 12 to 14, across cultures, have romantic interests. They should be able to explore them in casual, structured, supervised activity. Young kids don’t do well in the kind of relationship people expect to find among those 16 and older,” she said. “We find kids who move through progressive stages of romantic development are the ones who are doing well: Movies in groups, lots of talk with friends, not involved in one-on-one outside of the scrutiny of friends and family. Then it progresses to more couple relationships, still within the context of peers. They might be paired up, but still in a group. At 16 or 17, having a single boyfriend or girlfriend is not unusual.”
Of the early daters they studied, Connolly said researchers saw problem behaviors, including being impulsive, getting into arguments with friends, fights at home and truancy at school. “They’re not becoming serious juvenile delinquents, but they are creating challenges for themselves and others,” she told the Deseret News.
She emphasized that not all dating behavior creates problems. Certainly lots of kids in casual romantic interactions in a group setting don’t have any problems at all. But someone age 13 or 14 with a single partner is more likely to, she said.
“Parents who know where their kids are going, who monitor activities, are associated with better outcomes,” said Aaron M. White, co-author of “What Are They Thinking?” It’s a book about “the still-developing teen brain.”
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