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Teen Dating – Why Wait?

ROSEMARIE SISON, MD, FAAP

With Valentine’s day around the corner, the title of this blog is hardly what is expected but is a very relevant and important one.

My ten years in medical school and additional years in training did not prepare me to become a resource person for this subject – especially in the 21st century and dealing with ‘Generation Z’ teens. I have formed my opinion in this blog based on my basic moral principles, scientific facts and studies and for being a parent for twenty- one years who just like everyone else have the best interest of our children at heart.

It is normal for teens to become interested in dating but what is the appropriate dating (one to one dating) age? There is really no specific dating age that that has been proposed and it is usually up to parents to determine the appropriate age. After all, parents have the right, the duty and are the most qualified to decide on this important matter since they know their teens better than anyone else.

The next question is – are there consequences to dating too early or dating too much in high school? To have an objective answer to this question, let us look at an adolescent’s growth and development. Adolescence is the period of physical, cognitive and psychosocial development between the onset of puberty and adulthood. There are three stages considered – early (11-14), middle (15-17) and late (18-21) (1) According to The Piagetian theory (by Jean Piaget who was a psychologist known for work on child development) marks adolescence transition from the concrete operational thinking characteristic of school-aged children to formal logical operations. Young adolescents may be able to apply formal operations to school work but not to personal dilemmas. (3) Physically, by middle adolescence or even sooner, most teens’ physiological growth is complete. Many teenagers may physically look like young adults but behave like children because cognitive and psychosocial development lag behind physical development.

According to Dr. Andrew Garner, MD, FAAP member of the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and family health – scans of normal children have revealed that different parts of the brain mature at different rates. He says “in fact, some parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that sits right behind the eyes does not appear fully mature until 24 years old”. The PFC is thought to play an important role in regulating mood, attention, impulse control, and the ability to think abstractly – which includes both the ability to plan ahead and see consequences of one’s behavior. Many neuroscientists think that this mismatch in brain maturity may explain a lot of adolescent behavior. (1)
Based on these psychological and scientific facts, I am sure that most parents will agree with me when I say that delaying the onset of dating can spare our teens from a lot of unnecessary heartaches, drama, distractions and detrimental consequences. Besides this emotional turmoil, the following are two important reasons to delay the onset of dating (your teen may frown at this idea but he or she most likely will thank you for this, not necessarily now but maybe ten years later):

• According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, adolescence is the key time of identity formation when young people explore who they are and how they are perceived by others and where their lives are going. High school is the time for teens to discover who they are and too much dating can hinder this process. According to Jason Evert, author – “What many people do not realize is that you don’t need to date in high school to get to know the opposite sex or to have a successful relationship in college”. (4)

• A study by B.C. Miller et al., “Dating Age and stage as it Correlates of Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behavior”, there is an obvious increased risk of promiscuity among teens who started dating in seventh grade (4).
Teen promiscuity carries enormous consequences such as STDs and depression based on CDC statistics. (5) Teenage sexual activity has also been found to be detrimental to academic achievement in both boys and girls. (4)

TIPS TO HELP PREVENT TEENS FROM DATING TOO EARLY:

• Talk to your teens about anything and everything. Teens who are able to talk to their parents are far less likely to date early because they have high self-esteem and won’t feel incomplete without a boyfriend or girlfriend.

• Make sure your teen find love at home and that they feel loved even when you have to correct them. Spend time together as a family-this may be as simple as a family dinner at home.
Although this is not the main topic in this blog, it is noteworthy to mention that according to a study – when the sexual activity of teens was studied in relation to hormone levels “home environment had greater influence on behavior than hormone levels and if parent-child relations were good, hormone levels do not seem to matter at all re risky sexual behavior”. (4)

• Keep your teens busy and support them to become active in sports, school activities, clubs and youth groups. Encourage hobbies and jobs, special interests.

• Encourage teens to have friends. Friendships with the opposite sex, school dances and group dating where boys and girls socialize as part of the group and are unattached are absolutely fine.

• Set your standard and expectations very high and very clear – Talk about your family moral values even before the onset of puberty. Believe that it is possible to delay the onset of dating. Let us not have the “be realistic” mentality knowing that dating at a young age may have enormous consequences.

• What to do if you are not able to prevent your teen from dating – My unsolicited advice is that teens younger than 16 should not be allowed single dating and that teens older than 16 if allowed to date should have a lot of adult supervision. Openly discuss what a positive and healthy relationship should look like. Put limits and plenty of supervision such as having your teen’s date over to your home is allowed but not allowed to hang out in their room with the door closed or without you being home.

• Lastly, don’t be afraid to be a parent to your teen. “Parenting styles can affect adolescent outcomes. Permissive parenting has been associated with higher rates of substance use and school misconduct and less connectedness to school. Authoritative parenting has been shown to better foster adolescent well-being” (2). Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone!

References

1. Healthy children.org
2. PREP (Pediatrics Review and Education Program) 2018 – Adolescent psychological development: a review. Pediatric Rev. 2008; 29:161-168
3. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics
4. Raising Pure Teens by Jason Evert
5. CDC statistics

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