Teen Dating: Tips from an Expert

Mary Jo Rapini
Mary Jo Rapini

Teen dating is a big step toward adulthood. LoveToKnow had the opportunity to chat with Mary Jo Rapini, speaker, psychotherapist, and author of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex or Whatever. She's worked with teens since the 90s and offers insight into how parents and teens can handle heartbreak, dating challenges, and more.

Teen and Parent Communication Is Imperative

LoveToKnow (LTK): What are some ways teens can approach their parents when they want to begin dating?

Mary Jo Rapini (MJR): Well, the most important thing is that they keep communication open and that means both people. When kids are able to tell parents that they met someone, the more rational they are, the more likely parents are to talk about it. [Teens can] get emotional, and when they start talking when they're tired and feeling hormonal, this scares the parents. They're dramatic and not thinking clearly, so parents will close the topic before it's even explored or talked about.

I advise when their child wants to date someone, that's a great opportunity for the parents to invite the other child over. When your child wants to date and you get to meet the person they want to date, you'll be able to see the child's emotional development and self-esteem by what types of people they attract.

LTK: Sometimes teens may want to talk to their parents about a relationship, but they aren't sure how to begin. Do you have any tips for teens who want advice from their mom or dad but don't know where to start?

MJR: What I usually suggest is that parents of children around the age of 9, 10, or 11, start having dates with their child-go for coffee, go for a walk. Start making times when you're 100 percent attentive with your child. This time's not about lecturing but about listening, and when the teen asks for help or advice, tell what you learned from your experience. When parents start lecturing, teens tune that out. They do want to hear what mistakes you made.

You can even watch TV and talk together about the characters, what teens think, what the characters seem to think. When you have family dinners and talk about what happened or transpired that day, what you heard on TV or the radio, that does really help.

Parents also need to set goals for no TV; try for two to three times per week. You want to remember as a parent that kids are being inundated with information unless you make a routine time to shut the cell phones off and they can't tweet or get texts. If you don't protect that time, your child is pretty much unprotected at any time. When kids act out or become more demanding, they're really reacting to not having you around, not having you engaged in their life. That makes kids angry; they really do appreciate it even if they're saying "get off my back."

Dealing with Heartbreak and Uncomfortable Dating Circumstances

LTK: Do you have any tips for teens dealing with heartbreak?

MJR: I think what really is important is for them to know that this happens to everybody and the fact that they broke up is because something was wrong with the relationship. Heal from it by surrounding yourself with friends and family. When you're feeling down and discouraged, pump yourself up with the people who love you most-family dinners, church together, those routines help you feel stable at a time when you're usually not.

For teens, the best way to show this person you broke up with that you're still a strong person is by continuing to take care of yourself. Pamper yourself and show what a strong individual you really are. Teens say all the time, "I just want to tell them that I found out they were cheating." The hardest thing is for me to convince that teen that it's not going to help, it will make them appear weaker and make them feel worse rather than better.

LTK: How should a teen handle a situation where the person they're on a date with is trying to move too quickly (physical contact, for example)? What about when they're in a relationship and their boyfriend or girlfriend starts pressuring them for sex?

MJR: I think the most important thing is for parents-the minute your teen starts dating--is for you to sit down and talk to your teen about what this means and where they see the relationship going. The reason guys want to have sex is because they're curious and want to increase status. Girls want to secure the relationship they have with the boy and they want to feel more grown up. Found further down on the list is that they really wanted to do it. If you're being pressured for sex, it's important that you tell this person, "You're really special to me. You're a good friend. You mean a lot to me, and I don't want to have sex. This is stronger than sex. And I'm not ready to deal with those consequences."

Parents always want to impress upon a child that it's their own body and they do have a right to say no, and they will be more respected for it. I can't say enough about parents staying engaged with their kids. Sex isn't a bad thing , but it's unhealthy until you're ready to deal with the consequences.

LTK: What should a teen do if their parents don't like who they're dating?

MJR: If your parents don't like who you're dating, the chances are high that your parents don't really know them. If the parents don't like who you're dating and you're sure that this is a person that's good for you, ask your parents if you can invite the person for dinner. Ask if you and your boyfriend or girlfriend can make dinner for them. That's a wonderful way for parents to get to know the person. Sometimes parents may say they don't like someone you're dating because they don't like the way the person treats you or don't like the way they address the parents. Remain calm, explain it, and invite your friend to be part of the conversation or at least educate your friend. A lot of times, kids will change if they like the person, and they will make changes for that person's parents.

LTK: What are some of the challenges for teens dating today that their parents may not have experience with? How can they overcome those challenges?

MJR: I think one of the biggest things I work with is the cyber bullying. Parents had to put up with bullying, but they never had access to email and text and sexting and all this stuff 24 hours a day. That is so difficult. Parents need to make sure they're monitoring the computer and they know who their [teen's] friends are, and that they're honest about not talking to people they don't know online. It all comes down to communication, once again. The more the teen sees their parent as part of their team, the more they will feel they can go to their parents.

The other thing that is so incredible is these social networks, and the teens don't understand that whatever you put out on Facebook or MySpace or whatever you're doing, that remains permanent. Teens 15-16, in five or six years, will need a good job, and everything that they place on that board can be retrieved by potential employers.

Another thing that's just gone way beyond anything we've experienced in the parents' generation is that some taboos no longer exist. Teens talk to parents about being pregnant or about sexuality and feeling isolated and alone. Ninety percent of teens say parents are the first people they go to.

General Dating Tips

LTK: You mention in your book that 16 is a good age to begin dating. Do you have any general tips for teens who are about to go on their first date?

MJR: The way they're dating now, they pretty much go in groups. If it's a first date and you're sixteen, try and make the date more about the experience rather than what it means (are you boyfriend/girlfriend, going to be boyfriend/girlfriend…?) Make yourself as much a part of the present as possible, getting to know the person. Keep your promises to your mom or dad. Tell them the truth about where you're going, and make sure they can call in during that date and check in on you. Don't ever go out and do anything that doesn't feel right in your gut. If it feels that the date is going too fast or they just want sex or a nude picture, tell yourself you're too good for that and don't go. It's better to know up front rather than later when it could hurt you more.

LTK: Do you have any tips for taking a long-time friendship to a relationship?

MJR: Actually the best relationships are made when it starts as a friendship. Do not add sex into the cycle until you are ready to deal with the consequences like pregnancy, STDs, or the break-up of that friendship. Teens should wait until after high school, get into college, and see if they can maintain that relationship. Then you're in a better position. Teens who wait to have sex make better friends and lovers and make better choices in partners later. Timing is everything. If sex is done too soon, it will kill most relationships and end most friendships.

Open Communication Is Key

Whether you're a teen or a parent, work to keep the lines of communication open when it comes to dating. Share experiences with one another. With the support of family, a teen can more easily cope with the challenges that dating brings. For more information, visit MaryJoRapini.com.

Teen Dating: Tips from an Expert