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Dating dilemma: How soon is too soon to date?

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9 2013 9:15 a.m. MDT

The neuroscientist, a former Duke University professor who now works at the National Institutes of Health, said kids who are allowed to stay out late on weeknights are more likely to get in trouble. “My guess is that early dating, whatever association between it and negative outcomes, is probably mitigated by family dynamics.”

Parental guidance matters, but it’s not always an easy task.

Most dating doesn’t begin until a child has hit puberty, somewhere in adolescence, which is the journey from being a boy or girl to a young man or young woman, said Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, and author of several books, including “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence.” Until puberty starts, little girls hang with their girlfriends and little boys roughhouse with other fellows.

“You played with your own kind and that was fine, it was enough,” said Pickhardt. Then everything changes. “Now, on the way to becoming a young man or young woman, you need this association with 'other' folks.”

The “other” is not a totally foreign creature, he said. Kids have heard about the opposite sex, but from those of their own gender — superficial all-the-same descriptions, like boys are all hormones and girls are all teases. “They come together first not in an informed way, but in an ignorant way, so part of early dating is just finding out what is a girl like, what is a boy like,” Pickhardt said.

In middle school, boys and girls may go with each other, break up, go with someone else, all to the accompaniment of lots of gossip. It is in high school that real attachments form and a teen begins to genuinely enjoy being with someone of the opposite sex, he said. “At that point, dating becomes more significant.”

Parents need to help their teenagers understand what constitutes a good relationship and how you can tell if it’s not good, said Pickhardt.

It is also, alas, about the time that youths are moving away from their parents emotionally. If childhood is about attachment parenting, with parents nurturing those bonds for the sake of developing a secure dependency a child can trust, then the period between ages 9 and 13 begins a process of detachment, of a child splitting off from family members and becoming more individual and independent.

'Training wheels'

White describes adolescence as a “time when they are gradually clawing for and being given more independence.” Parents become training wheels for the teens’ frontal lobes, the section of the brain that allows one to make good choices. There are long-term implications, since kids are not built to do that automatically. “You can’t be around kids all the time, but you can help establish the framework in kids’ lives that determine what they will do when they have opportunities to make bad choices.”

Kids are not ready for early dating, White said. They are too driven by strong emotion, without rational thought or impulse control. It’s hard to sort through feelings and make good choices, so he said parents must be heavily involved at that stage.

“These are not things kids know off the top of their heads," White said.

“Attachment parenting was based on holding on to the child to teach what constitutes responsible behavior, the wise and not wise, the appropriate and inappropriate, safe and not,” said Pickhardt. As development shifts to detachment, it’s more about learning responsibility and dealing with the consequence of choice.

Dating is, on one hand, a let-go issue for parents, who must give children the freedom to go out with another person. “Just because you let go, that freedom does not mean you do not inform one about the responsible use of that freedom — good relationships, safe dating, helping evaluate the quality of the relationships you’re getting into. See if they are learning principles of good relationships that will serve them well,” he said.

Complicating factors

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