For many of us around the world, the month of February is synonymous with the celebration of love, hearts, Hallmark cards and all things Valentine’s Day. This can be a special holiday for both children and adults alike, as there is a possibility you have noticed your child starting to show interest in a certain friend or classmate beyond what was once considered to be a platonic companionship.
The thought of your child entering the world of dating and romantic relationships can be anxiety provoking to say the least. Not only do we have to deal with the fears and uncertainties that come as a result of the generational gaps between our children and ourselves, but in an international community like Shanghai parents are further required to consider how their cultural norms and expectations for their children may differ from the other children with whom they regularly interact. Being in a cross-cultural relationship myself, my wife and I will often talk about the stark contrast between her adolescent experiences as a third culture, expat kid and my own experiences as a small town boy raised in the heartland of the United States. And while we can joke about it now, we also recognize that someday down the road we too will need to have an important discussion about how our own contrasting upbringings will influence how we address the topics of dating, intimacy, and romance with our own children.
So in this day and age, when do children start to consider pursuing a romantic relationship, and when is the right time for parents to initiate the discussions that support this process?
What the Research Tells Us
While we have acknowledged the need to account for some general variation across cultural backgrounds and regions, a 2015 Pew Research Center (Washington DC) survey of 1000+ teenaged participants found that over 35 percent of adolescents had already been involved in a romantic relationship in some form or another by the age of 17. This percentage showed a steady increase over the years, climbing to nearly half of the adolescents in the 15-17-year-old age group who reported having been in a romantic relationship either currently or in the past. Moreover, one-third of the young respondents also indicated having engaged in sexual intercourse at some point and these numbers were consistent across different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.
It can go without saying that these numbers may look quite different if the survey group consisted of students from the international school community here in Shanghai. But nonetheless, statistics like these give us a good indication that (despite parents’ trepidation about the topics at hand) early adolescence is a time where romantic pursuits and the exploration of dating and intimacy is not only expected, but is often considered by child development experts to be quite healthy and age-appropriate.
Tips for Helping Your Child Navigate Dating and Romantic Relationships
1) Have honest, direct and frequent discussions with your child. Talking with your child about these subjects can be uncomfortable for both parties. Try not to let such feelings discourage you as a parent from having an in-depth discussion with your child about all the components of dating and romance – from the basics of courting rituals to more sensitive matters such as expressions of intimacy and practicing safe sex.
2) Be clear about your ground rules and expectations for dating. While ultimately we cannot control our child’s behavior, it is nonetheless important to establish clear ground rules when it comes to dating. Allow your child to first communicate his or her understanding of dating and relationships in an effort to convey a sense of respect and support. Follow that up with a set of mutually agreed upon parental guidelines for dating, including outlining behavioral expectations, enforcing curfews and setting age limits.
3) Set a healthy model for intimacy and respect between partners. The blueprint for how your child will ultimately navigate dating and the pursuit of romantic relationships is by observing how parents treat one another. Setting a good example for how to respect and intimately care for each other in the context of your own romantic relationship will significantly influence how your child will treat his or her own partner now and in the future. Even in situations that involve separation or divorce, a parent can still be a good role model for what healthy intimacy and respect for a partner should look like.
Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center, a comprehensive medical and mental health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: www.drnatebalfanz.com