A 6th grade girl may say, "Jacob is my boyfriend," but what does that mean?
"At this age, kids use dating labels but aren’t ready to have much direct one-on-one interaction beyond maybe sitting together at lunch or recess," says Dale Atkins, PhD, a family therapist in New York. "Most of the activity happens in a pack, and communication takes place between friend groups."
By 8th grade, dating probably means talking on the phone and hanging out, usually in groups. By high school, kids are more likely to develop serious romantic attachments.
Notice what "dating" seems to mean to your child and then talk about it. Michelle Anthony, PhD, a developmental psychologist and learning therapist in Denver, suggests an opening line like: “It sounds like a lot of kids are talking about dating now. Is that something you’re interested in?”
If you can't tell what dating means to your kid, try discussing dating as shown on TV shows or in movies that are age-appropriate. For instance, Atkins suggests asking your child why they think someone acted the way they did, and whether they made a good or healthy choice.
Focus on Emotional Maturity More Than Age
It's not just about your child's age. It's your job, as their parent, to figure out if your child is ready to handle the level of dating they have in mind.
Pay attention to how they respond when you start a conversation about dating. “Of course it will probably be uncomfortable for both of you,” Anthony says. “But if he’s so uncomfortable that he gets angry or shuts down or otherwise just can’t continue the conversation, that’s a big sign that he’s not ready for this.” If so, assure your child that there’s no hurry to start dating.
Instead, if they answer your questions or seem eager to date, you can steer the conversation toward reassuring them that these feelings are normal.
Is your child ready to connect with someone? Are they just trying to keep up with their friends? Are they confident and able to take care of themselves? Would they tell you if something went wrong? Do they look physically more mature than they are, emotionally? "A 12-year-old who looks 16 isn’t ready to date someone who is 16," Anthony says.
Are You Ready?
You may not love the idea of your child beginning to date, but don't try to pretend it’s not happening.
"Parents can be so uncomfortable with the idea of their kid becoming more grown up -- we wish our kids could stay kids," Atkins says. "The problem with that attitude is that your kid still is a kid. And he or she needs your guidance and support right now."
You don’t want them learning the rules of dating from peers or the media, without your input. The more you talk to your kids about what it means to be in a healthy relationship, the more likely they are to experience that, whenever they start dating.