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Young Love & Understanding Middle School Relationships

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Holding Hands

If you’re the parent of a middle schooler and the topic of dating has come up, it probably left you fretting over questions like these:

- What does dating so young say about my child’s personality in the long run?
- What if my child starts on a path toward physical intimacy? What if he or she isn’t mature enough to know how to say no?
- What if the emotional side of dating scars my child or sets them up for future bad relationships?
- What if my child gets a bad reputation for dating early?
- What if this is just the first of many steps my child is taking in the opposite direction from me?

I’m using the words “child” and “dating” in the same sentence and it’s freaking some of you out.

One of the biggest complexities of dating in middle school is that these are still kids we’re talking about; however, they’re kids caught between two worlds - not little children anymore, but not yet teenagers. They vacillate between the pull of both worlds, sometimes wanting to stay home and play with their toys and other times eager to announce a coveted relationship status on their Instagram bios.

Making the situation more complex is that we’re talking about a term without a universal definition. What does it even mean to be "dating?" Maybe you envision kids skipping class to fool around in the woods. Maybe your child envisions texting with someone they’re too afraid to talk to in the hallway at school. It’s hard to have rules around an area that is so undefined.

So, define it. Define it with your child. Before you freak out, calmly ask, “What does it mean to date someone at your age?” You might be surprised and relieved at their answer. Then it’s time to tell them what you’re okay with and where you have hard limits. Be brave enough to have hard conversations about physical and emotional intimacy and reputation and anything else that concerns you. And remember to have this conversation in a way that respects their need to feel grown up with your need to protect them. Keeping a neutral expression while you talk will help tremendously.

Also, this may help. While you have a web of questions in your head about young dating, most of the decisions I see middle schoolers make relate back to just one question: What kind of person do I want to be? This isn’t a philosophical question. It’s a very concrete litmus test for daily, minute-by-minute decisions. Do I want to be the kind of person who likes Chance the Rapper or Bruno Mars? Who wears Vans or Nikes? Who eats meat or goes vegetarian? What will each and every decision say about who I am to the people around me?

Not until early adulthood do we stop questioning what each decision says about our identity and that’s because by early adulthood we’re ready to focus on someone other than ourselves: a partner.

If your child wants to date in middle school, it probably has less to do with partnership, and more to do with searching for an answer to the persistent question: “Am I the type of person someone could like?”

Also, beware forbidden fruit. You may draw a hard line against dating, but in middle school, kids can be more attracted to both people and things their parents prohibit. It’s hard to say you can’t spend time with a certain person, especially when that person is with your child for eight unsupervised hours a day at school. Instead of banning people, think about banning activities. You might say, “I’m not okay with you going on a date, or labeling this person your boyfriend/girlfriend, but it’s fine to get to know this person better through texts.” If your middle schooler has a stubborn infatuation, invite their new friend to have dinner with your family. It may be old-fashioned, but keeping adults in the mix is a great way to slow things down.

Kids in middle school mature at vastly different rates. While I would caution you against making assumptions about kids who have an interest in dating at this age, and what this says about their character, I would also encourage you to be observant of serial-dating. Research shows that kids who feel the need to be in back-to-back relationships throughout middle school are more likely to engage in high risk behaviors in high school and beyond. So while thinking about or dabbling in this grown up part of life is normal, you may consider counseling if your child is habitually experimenting with relationships at a young age.

Regardless of your rules around dating, it will help if you empathize with this need for assurance and acceptance, realizing it’s not necessarily a sign of long-term insecurity but a normal phase of personal growth development. Talking it through with your child is a great opportunity to learn more about what drives their feelings, and it gives you the opportunity to share yours.

For more help understanding your middle schooler, check out Michelle’s book Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.

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