Most parents aren’t shy about coaching their middle schoolers on how to act at the dinner table. But parental guidance shouldn’t stop here. Just as parents need to teach their kids table manners, they need to teach them how to act — and how they should expect to be treated — in romantic relationships. Romantic relationships, after all, are confusing for everyone. But can be especially confusing for people whose brains are not yet fully developed, like middle schoolers. Here are some tips for talking to your middle schooler about dating.
1. Understand what is “normal”
Most questions out of a middle-schooler’s mouth boil down to this: Am I normal? While there is not one normal set of dating and sex behaviors for tweens, there are some general trends. As a parent, understanding these trends can help you more easily identify appropriate versus inappropriate behaviors. Ready?
Most middle-schoolers will begin to have their first serious crushes around this time. Unlike crushes they may have had in elementary school, these crushes are occurring at the same time as puberty. The rush of hormones combined with the whoosh of affection can make these crushes feel bigger and more urgent. As a result, your kiddo is more likely to try to find ways to hang out with their crush outside of school.
If you have a culture of open communication in your house, this is also a time when your little one may ask you about your first crush, first kiss, and first date.
2. Ask them questions
The best way to discern if your little me has a crush, is to invite them to share that information with you.
For instance, you might ask:
- You’ve been talking about X a lot! What do you like about them?
- You’ve been spending a lot of time with X. Are they a friend or a crush?
- I’ll drop you off at X’s house on Sunday. Is it a friend date or a date date?
Keep in mind: The way you phrase your questions will give your kiddo insight on what gender-dynamics you find acceptable. For instance, if you only ask your daughter if she has a crush on the boys in her friend group, she’ll intuit that boys are the only gender she’s allowed to have a crush on. So if you can, avoid gendered language altogether.
Your move: Replace “Do you have a crush on any of the boys in your class?” with the more-inclusive “Is there anyone you have special feelings for?”
3. Be gracious
If your child opens up to you about having a crush, work to avoid the urge to tease them. Making a joke of their feelings will minimize the chances that they’ll come to you in the future with their dating (and sex) woes. You also want to avoid putting too much pressure on the relationship. For instance, asking if that person is going to be their boyfriend or husband is a little too adult!
Instead, encourage your child to share what they like about their crush. This can open up an important dialogue about how a crush should (and shouldn’t) make someone feel. It also allows you to reiterate some of the characteristics someone should be looking for in a crush.
4. Talk about healthy relationships
Unfortunately, relationship literacy isn’t a subject in school. That means that your child is relying on you to teach them what a healthy relationship looks and feels like — as well as how to spot an unhealthy relationship. You want to start talking to your middle schooler about dating around the time they become interested in relationships.
How should you talk to your kiddo about relationships, exactly? In short, early and often.
There is no shortage of ways to bring up healthy relationships. Any time there is a healthy relationship on TV you could name it as such, meanwhile anytime gaslighting, verbal abuse, or love-bombing is presented on screen, you could identify that and explain why it’s harmful. You can also explicitly name the times your partner treats you well — whether your current partner is also your co-parent or not.
5. Model healthy relationships
No pressure, but your kiddo doesn’t just learn about healthy relationships from what you say — they also learn about it from how you and your partner(s) act. Actually, your kids are always watching and learning from you (even if they don’t want to admit it). This means they’re also learning about what relationships should look like as they watch you interact with their other parent(s), your parents, friends, service workers, and more.
No doubt, family dynamics are complicated. But if your kid sees you tolerating being mistreated, they’re more likely to tolerate that same behavior — whether it’s from their crush, dance date, friend, or another family member.
Use these tips as a jumping-off point for talking to your middle schooler about dating and remember to keep the lines of communication open so that your kiddo feels comfortable coming to you with any questions or concerns.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team