Twenge adds that when teens conduct the early stages of relationships online rather than in person, “it can place a lot of emphasis on physical appearance, particularly for girls. Research on self-objectification shows this is not a good formula for mental health. Online interaction can also be anxiety-provoking because it’s not in real time (‘Why didn’t he text me back yet?’). And if online communication involves sending nude photos, that creates a long list of issues — those photos virtually never stay on the phone of the boy who received them.”
Because much of the conversation online lacks the spontaneity of in-person interactions, it hampers kids’ abilities to pick up on body language, conversational nuances and facial cues. “If kids are never hanging out together in real life but they think they’re dating, they’re not modeling a healthy relationship,” Homayoun says. “By being involved, parents can help set the family values for what is appropriate and important. And if you don’t give guidelines, kids come up with their own.”
While the idea of our kids developing romantic interests can be uncomfortable for parents to deal with, it’s more important to seize the opportunity to talk to them about positive, pro-social relationships, says Homayoun. Instead of patently discouraging dating, Homayoun suggests that parents talk to their teens about what dating looks like to them. “It doesn’t have to be about going to a club or sending them out into the night. It can be going to a coffee shop, planning a daytime activity, spending time getting to know each other.”
Establishing that dating is verboten, even before your kid might be thinking about it, sets the stage for avoidance once those feelings do emerge. And what happens then? “They go underground,” Homayoun observes, having witnessed teens’ online habits firsthand. “They conduct their relationship in secret or online only. It’s not like 30 years ago when parents knew who was calling the house. Kids are conducting relationships on their smartphones in the privacy of their rooms, in the middle of the night, as they’re walking to school. Parents need to be aware that when a hidden relationship ends and kids are overwhelmed, that feeling of being heartbroken can be both devastating and also dangerous.”
So if your daughter expresses an interest in going on a date, she should be able to have a conversation with you about it without feeling judged. “Give your kids permission to say things out loud, ask questions, define what feels safe and comfortable for them in a dating relationship, talk with you about what’s appropriate,” says Homayoun. For parents, this may mean holding our tongues when our ideas get challenged, but it can lay the groundwork for a strong relationship with our kids down the road. This can be your moment to have those critical conversations about safe sex, consent and what constitutes sexual assault.
We don’t have to wait until they’re teens to start supporting our kids on the path to developing healthy romantic relationships. This can happen on the playground, in preschool. “There’s a teasing that happens with kids when they’re friends with someone of the opposite sex after a certain age,” Homayoun says. “When boys and girls play together and adults say things like, ‘Oh, they’re such a cute couple,’ it makes kids uncomfortable and sends the message that having friends of the opposite sex means they’re romantically interested.” In other words, if the core of every healthy romance is friendship, then allowing kids to form platonic friendships encourages the skills that build that foundation.
This is not to say that parents should push their kids into romance. “Not all teens are ready for dating, but parents can help them find ways to be appropriately social and independent in varying degrees,” says Homayoun. “They can offer kids the opportunity to rewrite the social script. They can help change the culture so kids have space to take healthy risks, be vulnerable, interact face to face” — and know that their parents have their backs when it doesn’t go as perfectly as they planned.