- Pediatrician Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, local moms, weigh in on teen dating
Most parents would agree that the seasons of parenthood seem to fly by. One day, you bring home a tiny newborn from the hospital, and the next thing you know, they’re starting school. Then comes the pre-teen and teen years, which, for many, include changing dynamics between kids and their peers and the start of dating relationships.
It’s that time that all parents seem to dread – watching their kids grow to the point where they’re wanting to go on dates – and it seems to be coming up sooner than ever.
It’s not our imagination. Renowned Ottawa pediatrician Dr. Paul Roumeliotis says teens are starting to date earlier than previous generations did.
“I think this is due to a variety of factors that relate to the old-fashioned concept of peer pressure, intermixing with today’s new on-demand, mobile and instant messaging opportunities through digital and social media technologies,” says Roumeliotis. “I believe that digital platforms like instant texting and sharing of images and gossip amplify the peer effect on teenagers, who now have to also worry about their online reputation and status. This is in contrast to previous generations who just had to worry about their peers at school or at other physical places like a friend’s home, or parties.”
Ottawa mom Melissa Docherty agrees.
“I think that pop culture is influencing the dating age,” she says. “Children seem to be skipping that awkward teenage stage and jumping right into young adulthood. They seem to be maturing faster… I think it’s based on their environment.”
When it is appropriate to start dating (in groups or one-on-one) depends on the readiness of each child and what they decide along with their parents, says Roumeliotis, who has produced hundreds of articles, booklets and videos on a variety of child health issues.
He believes readiness to date depends on the age, gender, and of course, personality of each child. For example, he says, “we know that girls start puberty at an earlier age than boys. Also, at any given age, some teens and tweens are more ‘mature’ than others.” It’s best left to the parents or guardians to decide when kids should be able to date as they know their child’s level of maturity and readiness the best, he says.
Docherty wasn’t worried when her son Damean – who will turn 13 on August 21 and be entering Grade 8 in September – first brought up dating.
“I wasn’t sure I was ready to be a parent of a dating boy, but that was more me not wanting to come to terms that he was growing up,” she says. “I absolutely think that children are dating much earlier now. I just hope that I have prepared my children as best I can. I wasn’t allowed to date when I was younger. I didn’t have a lot of freedom, and that led to a lot of sneaking around and lying,” she says. “I hope that by keeping an open dialog and trusting him, he can be honest about what is going on, and I can help him work through everything.”
That was one of several reasons for Docherty’s decision to trust her son with more freedom. Another was that “he has always been very mature for his age,” she says. Damean earns his own money for dates and outings with friends through extra chores and cat sitting.
“I figured that if I would be willing to let him go out with friends, I should be able to let him date,” she says.
“We started small, with just a movie, but he is now able to have a bit more freedom by earning my trust. He also knows that if he leaves where he is supposed to be, he loses the privilege of going out.”
Docherty is right to set boundaries, which should be age dependant, says Roumeliotis.
“From a safety point of view, there should be clear-cut rules for driving (including seatbelt-wearing), taking public transit, curfew time and having a means of communicating with (parents) during a date,” Roumeliotis says.
Whatever location is selected for a date, parents should be familiar with it to be sure it is appropriate for their kids, be it a mall, cinema, or dinner, he says. This also applies if their child is going to a friend’s house. In addition, parents need to ensure that safe transportation is arranged and that they are on standby should they be called for any issues, including needing a ride home.
Regardless of the venue and age, tweens and teens should always understand the boundaries and rules and be confident that their parents have their backs if they are needed, Roumeliotis says. “This is not to say not to give them some privacy. But rather, it is so kids can feel supported, especially if it is their first dating experience, which no doubt, will make them anxious and nervous.”
Another reason for allowing Damean to date had to do with how Docherty herself handled dating when she was growing up.
“I was a very rebellious teenager and would skip school to hang out with the boys,” she says. “Dating and sex weren’t things we talked about. I went overboard,” she says. “I hope that by teaching him responsibility, he can tackle things with a bit more of a clear head.”
On the other side of the coin, Barrhaven’s Cindy Chan says her two daughters aren’t dating yet.
The girls, who are 14 and 16, are both permitted to go out with a mixed-gender group of friends, as long as they have finished their homework and extracurricular commitments, she says. But she and her husband have decided that dating one-on-one should wait – and so far, Chan says, their daughters agree.
“There’s a time and a place for that,” she says, emphasizing that her daughters also had a say in the decision. “(My older daughter) will be headed to university in less than a year, and right now, it’s time to focus on school. It’s her choice as well.”
Part of the family’s reasoning to hold off on dating is the hope that the girls will avoid some of the problems that teenagers face. Chan says that they have already had talks about the risks of sex, alcohol consumption and other risky behaviour.
Roumeliotis agrees that it is better to be proactive rather than wait for the kids to ask.
When age or context appropriate, the safe-sex talk should have been already given, as well as a no-alcohol-or-drug rule, says Roumeliotis. Another thing that is absolutely necessary is to teach kids to never get into a car with a driver who has consumed alcohol or used drugs, he adds.
There is a lot of misinformation out there, says Roumeliotis – children hear a lot of rumors and inaccuracies about sex, dating and relationships etc.
“I think it is best for parents to pre-empt these questions with answers before their kids come to them with something they have heard at school, from friends or on social media,” he says. “If parents establish a judgement-free, safe and open relationship with their children early on, the talk about dating and related issues will be much easier and will actually follow naturally.”