By Laura Berman, PhD
How old is old enough to date?
Most parents feel plenty of anxiety when they think about their kids growing up and starting to date. They worry about them growing up too fast or engaging in sexual activity before they are ready, and they also fear that dating might distract their children from their homework and their after-school activities.
Now, a new study finds that parents might actually have good reason for their concern. The findings, which were published in this month’s Journal of Adolescence, demonstrated a link between dating and poor behavior including delinquency and truancy. Specifically, the researchers found that kids who begin dating earlier than their peers (at around age 11 as opposed to 13-14 years old) have a higher likelihood of engaging in delinquent behaviors like lying, cheating, sneaking out, running away, and starting fights.
The Risk of Growing Up Too Soon
What is it about dating at a young age that seems to increase negative behavior across the board? I think there are many factors at play here. First, it’s likely that these very young daters are dating people who are older than themselves. (Not many 11-year-olds are allowed to date, so it makes sense that they might be dating up a grade…or two or three).
Dating older people puts young tweens at grave risk. While there isn’t any date on young boys who date older girls, numerous studies have found that young girls who date older boys are at a much higher risk of things such as unwanted pregnancy, dating violence, and sexual assault. Since girls tend to develop earlier than boys, they often find themselves receiving attention from boys (or even grown men) who are much older than them. This puts them in a very vulnerable position, because most young tweens and teens will do anything for approval and praise from the older crowd.
Dating someone who is much older will make a tween more likely to engage in behavior she wouldn’t otherwise consider, and it can also increase her likelihood of being victimized sexually. And we know that sexual abuse can lead to all manner of emotional problems, which could explain behavior like lying, messing up in school and running away. The same is true for boys as well—dating an older girl might lead them to engage in destructive behavior as well, and we should not forget that boys can also be victims of sexual assault and unwanted advances.
Protecting our Kids and Encouraging Healthy Relationships
Whatever your personal rules are about dating (not until he/she is 16 years old, no one-on-one dates allowed, etc.), it’s important to make this a discussion that you regularly have with your kids. Explain the reasoning behind your rules, and let them know that you understand their frustration and their urge to grow up. Say something like, “I know you really want to go on dates like your older sister does, but dating before you’re ready can have negative consequences. You have your whole life to enjoy dating, right now, just enjoy being young and hanging out with your friends.” You might even point to their favorite celebrities like Disney Channel star Zendaya who wasn’t allowed to date until she turned 16 years old.
The bottom line is that parents have to vigilant about keeping their kids safe, but in a way that encourages positive discussion and plenty of communication. You want your children to feel safe coming to you with their questions and their concerns, so keep their doors open and let them know that there is no topic too big or scary for you to tackle as a family. Dating can be difficult enough as it is, but dating when you are 11 years old can be downright overwhelming and destructive, so let’s encourage young kids to enjoy their age and their freedom rather than making the focus all about dating