As my son prepared to enter high school, he would often talk to us about all the things he was looking forward to in the coming year.
There were sports and clubs he was excited to join. Friday night football games and tons of other teenage social activities.
But then one day, he caught me off guard when he said, “Well, of course, when I get a girlfriend.……”
I seriously have no idea what he said after the word girlfriend.
It’s not like I didn’t know that this would happen at some point. But you know, I was thinking later, like much later. Senior year later.
Okay, so maybe my timing for when my son would start dating was a little bit of wishful thinking.
But there was more to my momentary shock than just the idea of him dating.
It was sort of the way he said, like it was another item on his freshman orientation check list.
Buy Books. Learn locker combination. Sign-up for soccer. Get Girlfriend.
What was the rush? Why did he think having a girlfriend was some prerequisite for high school social success?
Luckily after the first week, the hype died down and I felt quite a bit better when he told me that he and several of his friends had decided they weren’t going to have girlfriends this first year. There was too much other stuff going on.
Now this bro-pact may or may not survive the year. And I’m well aware he could fall head over heels at any time.
But it’s kind of inevitable. At some point my little boy will start dating.
When the time comes I want him to be ready, and for me that means understanding what healthy dating and relationships look like.
In today’s world, there’s a lot of mixed messages for our boys (and the girls too) about dating, intimacy and sex. It can be confusing and we want our boys to know how to treat a girl, but we also want to make sure he is treated well too and that his heart is protected.
So, when the time comes, here are some tips to help you have this important conversation with our son.
How To Talk To Your Son About Healthy Teen Dating and Relationships
Building Off the Basics
A lot of what makes dating “healthy” is the same stuff that makes all social interactions work. This is what you’ve been teaching since he was a toddler: being polite, not hurting people, taking turns, considering other people’s feelings, etc. Dating is like being a friend, just with an added kind of excitement. Encourage him to be the kind of date he’d want to have: pleasant, caring, and respectful.
Then there’s hygiene. Usually by the time a boy is interested in dating, he’s figured out that he needs to bathe and brush his teeth. If yours hasn’t, make sure he knows that possible partners will be much more interested in someone who doesn’t stink. 😉
What’s the Right Age To Start Dating?
There’s a lot of pressure on teens and preteens to start dating and become sexually active. But kids are ready at different times. The “right” time is what’s right for your individual child, not what might be right for anyone else.
Your son won’t hear that message from peers or the media, so it has to come from you. Tell him the truth: that many people don’t start dating until late high school or beyond. Make sure he knows that even people who are “late bloomers” in the dating arena end up having great relationships in their adult lives. It’s much more important that he does what’s right for him than that he does it at some predetermined age.
Social and Emotional Skills
Dating is learning about a person and practicing being in a relationship. All the same emotional and social skills your son applies in other friendships will be useful when he dates. But because horniness and excitement can get in the way of good judgment, there are a couple factors that deserve extra emphasis when he enters the dating world:
He and his date won’t always won’t always agree; they won’t always want to do the same things. That difference is not something to pressure or ridicule the date about. He doesn’t get to control them, no matter how strong his feelings. (And the other person doesn’t get to control him, either.)
Every interaction is a two-way street. In conversations, that means he should try to learn about the other person, listen, ask follow-up questions. Both people should have a say in what activities they do together. When it comes to touch, whatever happens should be acceptable to both people and feel good to both of them.
Dating creates a special kind of intimacy (whether or not things get physical). Private things that are said or done between a couple should not be fodder for the locker room or the cafeteria.
Balancing Teen Dating and Friends
Some teens find it challenging to maintain relationships with friends while dating, especially if they really fall for someone. Your son shouldn’t give up his guy friends to spend all his time with his sweetie; there’s a place for both in his life.
Cultural images of masculinity tend to focus on toughness and strength. Guys who show softer emotions like tenderness, patience, and love may be ridiculed. But it’s those softer emotions that are essential for good relationships.
You can’t change the attitude at your son’s school, but you can let him know that you see things differently. Help him to think about old-fashioned masculine virtues like self-restraint and protecting weaker people. Tell him that you admire men who treat others well and dislike those who take advantage. Help him think about what sort of man he wants to be.
Remember how we used to talk to boyfriends and girlfriends on the phone? That’s rare now. Most teen romantic interactions happen by text.
One upside of this phenomenon is that actually talking on the phone is seen as a really romantic gesture. If your son wants to make a statement about how much he likes someone he’s been texting with, he can ask if he can phone sometime and just chat. (He’ll learn more about the person, too; he’ll experience their pauses and energy in a more organic, less scripted way.)
Going on a “real date” has an even bigger impact. When most dating involves “hanging out,” often with a group, it means a lot to arrange an actual outing where your son picks someone up and brings them home. (Even if you have to do the driving.)
When Things Get Physical
The difference between friendship and dating is that dating includes a different kind of physical contact, or at least the potential for it. A date is someone you really want to touch.
Of course, there’s loads to say to your son about sex. But start with the fact that dating and sex aren’t the same thing. He may be horny, but that doesn’t mean he should rush to have intercourse or any other kind of sex. Dating is about building a relationship and getting to know each other. Bodies are a part of that, but they certainly aren’t the whole thing.
As soon as your son starts dating, be sure to review the basics of STD prevention (wear a condom every time!) and birth control. Remind him how important it is to get active consent from his partner and not pressure anyone. Effective consent helps protect him from miscommunications and accusations—plus it’s just the right thing to do. Even though he might not become sexually active for years after he first starts dating, you want to make sure he’s informed for when the time comes.
Talking to your teen son about healthy dating may be a bit uncomfortable for both of you at first. But this should be an ongoing conversation and over time you will both become more relaxed and open about it. It’s alway good for your son to know he can talk to you about anything and being willing to talk about the new relationships in his life, can also help to strengthen your relationship with him.
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.
This teen dating stuff can be tricky, need some more good tips and advice?