It has finally happened. The sixth- and seventh-grade girls in my Girl Scout troop are starting to date. They talk about boyfriends and which boy left a note in their lockers, who gave them candy at lunch and more indications that we have entered the brave new world of dating.
This Valentine’s Day we have moved beyond the packaged cards for every person in their class to the stuffed animals, chocolates and flowers for a special someone, or worse yet, the heartache of not getting anything from anyone. They are starting to have their first real crushes.
We talked to psychologist Mike Brooks, director of the of the Apa Center, and Katie Malinski, a licensed social worker and parenting coach, about what is age-appropriate when it comes to romantic relationships.
What is age-appropriate? Preschoolers might come home saying they have a boyfriend or girlfriend. How could that be? Well, we have only one set of words to describe this relationship, Malinski says, and so, while the terms feel uncomfortable to adults, kids don’t have a better word.
It’s more in the context of friendships and that they like each other, Brooks says.
They are copying what they see in a way that is more like pretend play. They might sit next to each other or hold hands. They might even go to the home center in their classroom and pretend to be the mommy and the daddy. This might be more common when kids have an older sibling or a parent who is dating.
When to worry: If they are using language that sounds like something in the adult world of sexuality and it is more than just wondering where babies come from, then it’s time to worry about what they have been exposed to.
Kids also can be curious about their bodies, and you’ve heard of “playing doctor.” That’s why supervision is important and also talking about what is OK and not OK to do with friends.
What is age-appropriate? Early elementary school can feel a lot like preschool. Kids are expressing feelings of friendship using the terms “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” and they are modeling what they think relationships should be.
Somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, things start to change. Kids start to play together along gender lines and hormones enter. They might become more interested in the opposite sex or express feelings of love for the same sex. You can ask fishing questions such as “Are there any girls in your class that you might find attractive?” and see if they bite.
“Dating” in late elementary school looks like holding hands and hanging out together as friends. “In elementary school, it’s almost intention and a desire and interest rather than it actually happening,” Brooks says.
But do not discount it because it feels like love to them, even if it’s not the same kind of love that they will feel as adults.
You are continuing to have conversations about relationships and the birds and the bees as you will throughout their adolescence. A couple of ideas to become more comfortable with kids’ questions: Have a journal in which they can write questions and you can answer back. Practice what you are going to say, including using the right terms for body parts, in the mirror. Remember to have a conversation with your parenting partner before you have these conversations to make sure you are on the same page.
When to worry: If it feels like a more serious relationship and is moving beyond just wanting to hang out and maybe hold hands, that might be outside the norm. Every kid is different and every family’s cultural values are different, though. Make sure they are not excluding other people from their world.
What is age-appropriate? “Dating” at this point is more about practicing social norms than sexual exploration. “They are practicing the social skills of having a boyfriend,” Malinski says. There might be some hand-holding, maybe some kissing and they might even go on group dates. Interest escalates with each grade.
It is also completely age-appropriate to be terrified of romance or have no feelings of interest. You’re continuing to have conversations about your values, emotions and respecting other people and demanding to be respected yourself.
When to worry: If they have lost all interest in anything or anyone but the object of their affection, that’s a red flag. Also, this is an age when you probably want to monitor them and not leave them alone for too long.
What is age-appropriate? The truth is high-schoolers can be all over the place from being sexually active to having no interest at all and not having those feelings until college. Kids are also probably a little afraid of dating, Malinski says, and that’s normal.
In middle school they are experimenting with what it means to have a relationships with another person. In high school they are really having a relationship with another person. Every relationships is preparing them for their future relationships as adults.
It is age-appropriate to be moving from group dates to solo dates that Mom and Dad are not involved in at all. This is also when kids are probably moving beyond hand-holding and kissing as much as you might not want to think about it. You do need to continue to have conversations and be the parent your kids can come to with questions and feelings.
It’s also really important to talk about consent and what it means to give and to receive consent.
When to worry: Here are the red flags of an unhealthy relationships:
They cut off ties with their friends.
They stop doing activities they’ve done in the past.
Their grades have dropped.
They are not sleeping or sleeping too much.
They feel stressed out.
Their happiness level has gone down and not up.
Everything feels tied up in this relationship.
You suspect that they are being abused physically or emotionally.
They start sneaking out to be with this person.
You start catching them in lies.
The reality is, you can’t really forbid them to see this person because they will find a way to do it, but you can offer your opinion and express your concern.
You also can invite them to problem solve. Discuss what they think a healthy relationship is and what their goals for the relationship are. Are their criteria being met? You can’t help them meet their goals, but you can help them to do an internal check if this person is meeting those goals.