Valentine’s Day is an exciting time of year for tweens to interact with peers by delivering kind messages in cards, celebrating at parties and sharing their favorite sweets. But unlike the comfortably predictable annual arrival of Valentine’s Day festivities, anticipating when your child is ready to start dating can be hard to pin down. While there isn’t a set schedule or age when every tween is ready for dating, beginning the conversation about relationships as early as possible is important, advised Candice Noble, a guidance counselor at Fort Clarke Middle School.
Even years before tweens plunge into the dating pool, opening clear lines of communication is a vital step to being involved in your child’s developmental journey, according to Noble. Creating an open, supportive environment ensures your child will feel more comfortable talking about their relationships as the years progress.
“During the tween years, kids are mostly still trying to figure out what dating means,” Noble said. “Dating at their age can be as simple as seeing each other in the hallway or holding hands.”
And it’s never too late to start talking, Noble urged. Incorporating casual dating conversation in non- threatening settings, such as during car rides or while walking to get the mail, can help alleviate any pressure or apprehension about opening up.
Framing relationships in the context of something tweens are already familiar with, like best friends, can also help. If you’re watching a movie or TV show together and relationship issues arise, ask them what they think using questions like, “Would you let your best friend treat you that way?” or “If that happened to your best friend, how would you handle it?”
Along with conversation, parents need to begin early as a model to help kids learn about what healthy relationships look like, recommended Dr. Victor Harris, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Family, Youth and Community Sciences Department at the University of Florida.
“There is strong evidence that healthy dating that leads to healthy future relationships is largely shaped by choices in adolescence and early adulthood,” Harris said.
A healthy, stable relationship is built in part upon a foundation that includes friendship, safety, commitment, respect and trust. Through parents’ modeling of healthy relationships and exposing tweens to positive examples, they will internalize characteristics of good relationships. It also helps in filtering out influences, such as the media, that can misrepresent healthy relationships.
According to Harris, by the time they’re tweens, kids have been exposed to thousands of sexually explicit images that objectify both genders. These images shape feelings about body image, identity and other related areas that condition how they see themselves, others and their world. How well tweens identify with the media greatly influences their perceptions of what healthy or unhealthy relationships look like.
“Wise parents are careful to point out inaccuracies in the media…by clarifying that real love is kind, giving, sharing, unselfish, and wanting what is best for another person,” Harris advised.
Above all else, both Harris and Noble agree that consistent, open communication is key.
“I remember wanting my mom to stop talking to me [about dating] and she never did,” Noble recalled. “That was probably one of the best things she ever did for me. I’m so glad she kept asking questions.”
Of course, Noble warned, parents should allow tweens to have space when they need it.
“Just don’t let them disappear entirely,” she said.