One reason that adolescence is such a complicated time is because the brain is still changing. And most teens overwhelmingly prefer the company of their friends over their parents.So coupling an adolescent’s risk-taking with his love for reward plus the innate need to establish his own sexual identity can mean that previously innocuous behavior can lead, if unchecked, to high-risk activities. While most people think of dating as getting in the car, picking someone up, and taking them to the movies or dinner, that’s an adult’s definition.What’s more, the students who dated since middle school also experienced greater risk for depression because of the impact of romantic breakups. So many of these relationships last a week or three weeks. “In school they should not have to focus on dating, but on promoting friendships and healthy relationships.” Kelly Smith, a counselor at Willowcreek Middle School in Portage, Ind., agrees, saying that she spends much of her time dealing with these social and emotional issues.
Some relationships are very innocent and age-appropriate, some are in the middle and some are having sexual relations with a boyfriend or girlfriend then move on to the next,” Smith says. Parents need to have these conversations early and often with their children.“Unfortunately, it seems we have more kids choosing to be involved in sexual relationships at a much earlier age.” So what can parents do to help their kids navigate the difficult waters of dating during middle school? “The first time that you talk with your child about relationships shouldn’t be when there is a big problem,” Corcoran says.They are, in essence, the first responders—the people who our children will look to before coming to us as parents, Corcoran says.“We need to treat young people as individuals who will be committed to engaging in healthy relationships.In fact, changes in an adolescent’s brain around puberty may contribute to an adolescent's seeking out romantic relationships and expanding them into sexual relationships, says B. Casey, Ph D, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. Adolescents don’t see dating that way, says Casey Corcoran, program director for Children & Youth at Futures Without Violence. The spectrum of informal to formal relationships is wide,” Corcoran says.
“Young people don’t have a lot of experience with relationships.One recent study from the University of Georgia evaluated the dating habits of 624 students in grades 6 through 12 from six Georgia school districts over a seven-year period.Students who reported dating since middle school demonstrated the poorest study skills in the group and were four times more likely to drop out of high school.Finally, always remember to set aside time to spend with your children, even if they don’t seem to want to spend it with you.“A parent who regularly spends time with their teen can pick up on changes in mood or dress that you might not pick up on when you are just passing each other in the morning,” Corcoran says. Spending time with your kids really matters.” And don’t worry if you think that they are not listening to you, Corcoran says.Lead researcher Pamela Orinpas says that the study also found that these early daters were twice as likely to have consumed alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and used marijuana in middle school and high school, all risky behaviors. One of the biggest take-home messages from the study, Orinpas says, is that kids don’t have to be dating at that age.