By John Townsend, Ph.D.

One of the most important steps in teens’ development is the dating stage, or when they begin to spend time with the opposite sex. It is a time for learning about values, intimacy, romance, commitment and ultimately how marriage should look. On the other hand, this exciting stage is one that causes great angst and concern for parents, who ask questions like: How do we know if she’s going to make good choices? What if he gets sexually involved?

Well, we can’t make dating the problem, because it’s probably how you chose your spouse, and it’s a good process. So here are some guidelines to help you navigate the issue so that it’s helpful for your teen and for you.

• Define the word. Younger teens will sometimes say they want to date, and what they are referring to is texting, Facebooking or having a conversation with someone at school. Just clarify that this isn’t really dating, and maybe rephrase it as “having a special friend.” Dating is largely considered to be the process of going out one-on-one with someone you’re romantically interested in on a prearranged outing. The “prearranged” part is important because it requires responsibility, thoughtfulness, consideration and planning, especially on the boy’s part. This is the opposite of some guy dropping by in his car and honking the horn for your daughter to come out, which is not dating.

• What age? Most experts land on 16 as the minimum age for dating. Developmentally, adolescents have matured enough to have internalized healthy family values, with some history of making good choices and relating well to the opposite sex. However, and this is a big however: Just because your teen is chronologically 16, he or she may not be emotionally 16. If a 16-year-old is 12 years old on the inside and does not do well on these three areas, you may need to work with them on growing up and upping their game.

• Set expectations. You have to earn the privilege of dating, as it is not a right. That means parents should have a conversation with their teen about their expectations, with the understanding that dating privileges might be revoked if expectations aren’t met. This ensures no surprises or misunderstandings.

  • Family values-based behavior. An adolescent who wants to date should continue behaving in such a way that presents no major conflicts with family values. In other words, a dating teen should behave as a healthy teen from a good family: good grades, considerate behavior, no alcohol or drug abuse or experimental sexuality, and respect for authority figures such as teachers, police and both sets of parents. Hopefully, you have discussed these expectations throughout your teen’s life.
  • Specific behaviors relating to dating. Then there are expectations for the specific arena of dating. This means obeying curfews, meeting parents of both teens and practicing safe driving.
  • Writing down the rules. When nothing is written, you can end up with chaos: “You never said I needed to be home by midnight!” Avoid all that by talking with your teen about expectations about family and dating behaviors. Get their input and listen to their side respectfully. But in the end, you make the final decisions, and write them down. By the way, don’t make it more than one side of a page. Few people can engaged in, use or remember a list of ground rules if it’s longer than that!

• No kidnapping. Early dating can usurp a teen’s life. Lots of strong and intense feelings are involved. It’s easy for them to ignore friendships and spend all social time with their special someone. I call this kidnapping, and it causes an imbalance and possible social isolation. It also causes more pressure to bear on the sexual side of the relationship. A good rule of thumb is for teens to spend at least 50 percent of their social time with friends and no more than 50 percent with their romantic interest.

• Encourage dating around. Dating several people at once is a very good way to keep from being kidnapped. It also helps a person to prepare for marriage, because you can observe different styles, values and preferences in other people. Dating serially (one person at a time) limits a teen’s viewpoint. Also, when teens aren’t in an exclusive relationship, they are more likely to present their “best selves” to each other.

Dating is part of the last phase of parenting. Enjoy it and help your adolescent to grow from it. For more information, check out my book with Dr. Cloud Boundaries in Dating. Best to you.