By the time most children enter middle school their parents are starting to realize they’re not little kids anymore. They’re not quite teenagers yet, either. Regardless, many are playing the part, wearing makeup, spending hours on Facebook and, much to their parents’ dismay, asking to go on dates.
Conventional wisdom says there’s no “right” age to start dating – it depends on the child’s maturity. But new research suggests there is probably a “wrong” age to start dating: middle school. If your pre-teen is in pursuit of a junior-high romance, make sure you’ve talked with them about these five risks:
#1 Drug Use – Building on a large body of research, a recent study from the University of Georgia found children who date in middle school use alcohol and marijuana twice as much as their peers who hold off on dating until high school. The more time teens spend with a love interest, the more likely they are to use drugs. Those most at risk for substance abuse are girls who date boys two or more years older than them.
The connection between early dating and drug use goes beyond being an “early bloomer.” Kids who start dating early may be naturally more inclined to risk-taking. There is also a practical element: If the romantic interest – or, interestingly enough, their friends – drink or use drugs, your child will likely follow suit to demonstrate their ability to fit into the partner’s life.
This type of indirect peer pressure can be positive if the partner and their friends steer clear of drugs and alcohol, or it can be an early introduction to a potentially life-altering problem. For parents who are unaware of the people and dynamics at play, it’s difficult to know what you’re facing. This is yet another reason to spend relaxed time together and engage in frequent conversation; surveys show teens actually want to discuss dating, drugs and other pressures with their parents.
#2 Academic Problems – Despite often lasting a month or less and taking place mostly via text, pre-teen relationships can be intense and all-consuming, drawing kids’ focus away from academics. In the University of Georgia study, early daters had significantly worse study skills and were four times more likely to drop out of school than those who delayed dating. Other studies have reached similar conclusions: Dating takes a toll at school.
#3 Early Sex – An obvious question on most parents’ minds when their children start dating is: Does this mean they’re having sex? On average, teens hold off on sex until around age 17. But having a steady boyfriend or girlfriend at a young age increases the risk of early sex, as does having friends in higher grades, frequenting social networking sites and spending less time with platonic friends. In a survey sponsored by Liz Claiborne, more than one in four children said sexual activity is part of tween dating relationships.
This heightened risk can be explained, at least in part, by younger children’s vulnerability to peer pressure and still-forming personal values and identity. Even if your child isn’t sexually active, the risk of substance abuse and other problem behaviors increases if many of their friends are having sex.
#4 Dating Violence – Pre-teens haven’t had enough relationship experience to know how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behavior. They may only feel loved when their partner is exceedingly jealous or controlling, or they may make threats if a partner tries to break up with them. Even at this early age, more than half say a friend has experienced some type of dating abuse and the rates are even higher (70 percent) among those who have sex before age 14. As victims of teen dating violence grow into young adults, they are more vulnerable to additional trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, binge drinking and drug use.
Dating is more complicated in the digital age. Young people stay in contact via social networking sites and cell phones, sometimes using these venues for harassment and abuse. One study found one-quarter of teens involved in a romantic relationship are abused by their partner via cell phones or social media. With 24/7 access to one another, it can be difficult to escape.
#5 Emotional Health – Middle school romances can have a lasting impact on young people’s emotional development. In one study, children who made healthy partner choices became mentally and socially healthier when assessed 11 months later. Those who chose troubled partners saw their problems intensify over time.
Research shows that tween and teen daters struggle with depression more often than their single peers, an effect that is especially pronounced in girls. Early relationships take time away from same-sex friendships, a form of longer lasting support and a type of connection that allows tweens to develop social and interpersonal skills without many of the risks inherent in romantic relationships.
It’s tempting to conclude that dating is “bad.” It’s not. For older teens, it can help them develop a healthy sense of self and master critical social and interpersonal skills that will serve them well in more serious relationships down the road. It’s the age at which dating starts that’s a concern.
Parents are under a lot of pressure to cave on the dating issue. By the end of middle school, many do. Instead, consider a healthy middle ground: Encourage supervised group activities like school dances, movies and sporting events or have supervised dates at home, but hold off on the one-on-ones until high school.