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.”
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.
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.
It’s all utterly complicated by what White calls a “strange kind of phenomenon in modern America that has never happened before": Puberty is starting earlier, kicking off brain and physiological change, but good behavior and brain maturity are delayed. The results are contradictory and potentially devastating.
Development is tied to the onset of puberty and the assumption is that once sexual maturation starts, brain development gets kicked off. Instead, kids are becoming more physically mature and sexual, without good judgment or mental maturity.
The frontal lobes aid certain things, from making good choices to controlling impulse. Many of those skills are moldable, not fixed, said White. For kids to learn to consider the future and control emotions and impulses requires fine tuning by experience.
“The result is kids are ready to go sexually but have not started to be prepared culturally to make good choices with that drive. It’s a weird development, but that’s the way it is,” White said.
That increases the importance of parental monitoring and presence.
Letting kids stay out late unsupervised is associated with more sexual activity and drug use partly because they are more likely to run into people doing those things, said White.
Most first sexual experiences are “substance affected,” said Pickhardt. “They are not soberly chosen . That’s a major variable.”
It takes dating relationships “from caring to less caring to careless,” he said, and young people make decisions they would not make if they were sober.
The other complication parents encounter, about the time a child hits puberty, is they’ve been joined by what Pickhardt calls “the public parent” — entertainment, advertising and icons that send their own set of probably-not-parent-approved messages. That parent is hard to compete against. “All of a sudden, a kid is getting indoctrinated with all kinds of other ideals. That public parent has enormous power, so the actual parents need to be able to keep talking about these images.
“The public parent has no vested interest in emphasizing what it means to be treated well or treat someone else that way, to talk about sexualization or what young love is,” he said.
The public parent is simply trying to create a good consumer, a fact that eludes its target audience.
Pickhardt has seen the “public parent” challenged into backing down just once, when the shocking news hit that the most influential cartoon character in the lives of even young children was Joe Camel, of Camel cigarette fame. California went to war to stop the ads — and won.
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