Parents: How to Help Your Teen Set Healthy Dating Boundaries

Parents face a tough set of decisions when their teens reach dating age. We’re talking about actual romantic dating, not elementary and middle school crushes that are all sugar and no spice. There comes a point when your child moves past the days of that simple, timeless note, passed through an intermediary at the lunch table:

Dear Christina,

Will you go with me?

Circle one:

Yes                         No

ps I think you’re the cutest girl in 6th grade

Most of us remember that note. Writing it, receiving it, delivering it – the whole deal. When our kids reach this stage, we smile and reminisce. It’s cute. It’s harmless. And it’s the beginning of a journey that lasts a lifetime. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us parents admit we still have work to do in our relationships with our spouses, partners, or romantic interests. Whether we’re divorced and dating casually, in a decades-long marriage, or in a serious committed relationship, virtually everyone has more to learn about how to keep relationships happy, fulfilling, loving, and above all else, healthy.

Back to the cute note: parents generally don’t get freaked out at that point, because we know it’s got no teeth – at least we hope so. By that we mean that most kids at that age don’t even know what they mean by the question “Will you go with me” and, much like us, they’d be hard-pressed to explain what “going” actually entails. Standing awkwardly next to one another at a school dance and maybe holding hands? Possibly a slow dance, one hand on shoulder, other hand on hip, plenty of daylight in between bodies? Giving an extra valentine at the class party?

Don’t misunderstand us: we’re not so naïve as to think all middle schoolers are lily-white innocents, and you shouldn’t be, either. Statistics from a study on risky youth behavior published in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tell the story:

  • 9% of youth report they had sex for the first time before age thirteen. The gender breakdown:
    • 6 % of males
    • 2% of females
  • The total percentage dropped from 10.2% in 1991 to 5.6% in 2013.
  • The total percentage dropped steeply from 5.6% in 2013 to 3.9% in 2015.

We cite these numbers to make two key points. First, to acknowledge that some pre-teens are way past the “sex sounds gross” stage, and second, to suggest that the decline in early sexual activity seems to – we have no data for this – coincide with adult willingness to discuss sex and sexuality in an open, honest, and direct manner.

Notice that in the twelve-year span between 1991 and 2013, the percentages dropped about 0.4% per year. Then in the two-year span between 2013 and 2015, they rate of decrease doubled to about 0.8% a year. At face value – and again, this is just us interpreting the numbers we see – it appears that something we’re doing as a society is working. We’d like to think that the more comfortable we become with talking about sex, the more rapidly we see positive outcomes. Hence the snowball effect evident in the last two years of the data.

We digress – but not so much, really. If openness and directness are keys to keeping kids from having sex too early (we hope can agree that before thirteen is too early), then we assert that it’s important for you to be open and direct with your teenager about relationship dynamics, too. That way they won’t develop dysfunctional relationship habits early on. And we all know it’s very difficult to unlearn unhealthy habits, especially when they’re the first habits we learn.

Teen Relationships: Basic Guidelines

The foundation of healthy dating lies in building realistic relationship boundaries. When you’re talking to your teenager about creating boundaries – and this goes for friendships, too – it helps to think of them in three categories:

  • Emotional boundaries cover things like when, how, and why your teen shares their feelings and private information, how they communicate their need for space, and how they prefer to be treated in word and action.
  • Physical boundaries cover anything from personal space to holding hands to making out to real sexual activity.
  • Digital boundaries cover everything smartphone and computer-related. Texting, sexting, sending pictures, social media posts, emails, and old-fashioned phone calls all qualify. In the digital age, setting digital boundaries is critical, and can lay the foundation for creating healthy boundaries in real life – or IRL as your teens probably say.

Healthy boundaries are based on respect. Your teen may need help defining their emotional, physical, and digital needs at first, but once they understand the concept of healthy boundaries, they’ll catch on quickly.

Some are more obvious than others. No means no, for instance, is a good default place to start with regards to physical boundaries. It’s also a good ground zero for all boundaries. Boys and girls alike need to know that when they make a decision about a particular boundary, be it emotional, physical, or digital, then communicate that decision to a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend, that’s it: that’s their rule and it should be followed. They get to decide. Their word is final.

No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Their stated preferences need to be honored. Anything else shows a lack of respect. It’s that simple: if a friend or romantic interest ignores their wishes and steamrolls their emotional, physical, or digital needs, then it’s time to re-evaluate that relationship, and perhaps label it as something other than friendship or romance.

The Fundamentals of Respectful Romantic Relationships

We won’t try to tell you when your son or daughter should start dating – that’s for you to decide. The right time varies person-to-person. A heads up: if you have more than one child, the right time might be different for each. This may cause some static at home – you can imagine the “It’s not fair! So and so got to go on a date when she was 15!” tantrums, but you can handle that. One child may be ready at fifteen, another might not: all fun details for you to work out over family dinner.  If and when they do start dating, however, it’s important they understand the basic notions of boundaries and respect at their most fundamental, non-dating levels, then learn how these ideas play out in the wide, wonderful (terrifying for parents) world of relationships and dating.

The parent resource website Ten to Twenty Parenting offers great advice on the role of respect in romantic relationships. In a respectful relationship, your significant other:

  • Tells the truth
  • Compromises
  • Gives you space to be yourself
  • Admits when they’re wrong
  • Talks through conflict in a productive manner
  • Honors your boundaries, emotions, and point of view
  • Values your family and friends
  • Listens when you say “No”
  • Accepts it when you change your mind – especially if/when you want to break up

If your teen is involved with someone or thinking about making it official with a love interest, talk them through these bullet points. Remind them that compromise in a relationship does not mean they compromise on non-negotiables such as emotional, physical, and digital boundaries. Those should remain firm. Compromise means coming to a mutual decision on what movie to go see, where to sit at lunch, or what time to meet at the mall – not shifting their reasoned decisions on important matters or abandoning their personal values and ideals.

Teen Relationship Red Flags

Teen love can be intense and topsy-turvy. Love and romance at any age can be confusing and chaotic, for that matter. People are complicated. They get emotional. They make mistakes. Inside all that, though, a romantic relationship should be something that enriches life and adds love and joy rather than stress and negativity. Emotions and mistakes can be understood and forgiven – as long as individuals own their emotions, admit their mistakes, and work to maintain regain trust when things go off-kilter. There are, however, certain behaviors that constitute genuine red flags, and indicate that a relationship – or one person’s approach to a relationship – is dysfunctional and potentially toxic. We’ll use information from Ten to Twenty Parenting as a guide once more. Not just because they’re marketing tag line is funny “Ten to Twenty – It’s an Age, Not a Sentence” but because they’re spot-on.

Warning Signs of Teen Romance

Tell your teen that if their romantic interest does any of the following, it’s not a good sign:

  • Humiliates you
  • Belittles your opinion
  • Tries to get serious too quickly
  • Says they can’t live without you
  • Breaks things to intimidate you
  • Threatens to hurt themselves if you break up with them
  • Asks you to choose between them and family/friends
  • Pressures you into sexual behavior by saying “If you love me, you’ll…”
  • Pressures you into using drugs, drinking, or other risky/illegal behavior
  • Calls you names – i.e. insults – during arguments or when angry
  • Checks up on you, texts or calls incessantly, and demands to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time
  • Demands you be on call for them 24/7 no matter what
  • Makes you afraid of how they’ll react to bad news
  • Makes you afraid to express your thoughts or feelings
  • Threatens to break up all the time
  • Fails to respect your emotional, physical, and digital boundaries
  • Hurts you physically

A couple things on this list, such as physical aggression/harm or excessive pressure to have sex and do drugs are grounds for immediate termination, no questions asked. Others may simply be plain old teenage drama and poor judgment, such as saying “I can’t live without you” or trying to get serious too quickly.

While we don’t advise you to advise your teen to break up with someone if they say “I love you and you’re my soulmate” after just two weeks, we do advise you to tell you them that going that fast can backfire. It it’s real love and the beginnings of true partnership, it will last. But time will be the ultimate arbiter of that. Your teen needs to know there’s no good reason to rush into anything when they’re still in high school.

And romantic ultimatums?

That’s way more than your kid needs on their plate. They should be worrying about passing the next trig exam and finishing their group project for history class. Your teenager should be aware it’s inappropriate for their romantic interest to pressure them into anything. From having sex to saying “I love you,” tell your teen those things need to happen on their schedule and in the manner in which they’re comfortable. Guilt trips and aggressive coercion are simply unacceptable.

A Template for the Future

Setting boundaries is not always easy. As adults, we know this from personal experience. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit we usually learn the importance of setting firm boundaries in relationships after it’s too late. When we’re young we make lots of mistakes. We take on other people’s problems as if they’re our responsibility, we try to fix people, we make excuses for behavior we know isn’t healthy, and we give people a thousand and one second chances.

It’s easy to rationalize this type of behavior, because we do it in the name of love. Which is noble, of course. Love is a powerful force, and when we love someone, it’s easy to make excuses for them. It’s easy to believe they’ll change. We think we can love them into being different people. We think we can wash away their faults with our love, our generous spirit, and our kindness. Then we learn that despite our best intentions, we can’t really do any of that at all: at some point – usually after some hardship and heartbreak – we learn to take care of ourselves in relationships. We learn to set firm, appropriate boundaries and stick to them no matter how hard it is.

We’re not saying your sons and daughters will never experience heartbreak. Chances are they will. We’re not saying your big-hearted kid shouldn’t go out of their way to help their friends, and at times put the need of others ahead of their own. That’s an admirable quality to cultivate, but never at the cost of compromising their integrity and self-worth or ignoring their innate sense of what’s right and wrong. When your teen starts dating, talk to them about boundaries. Give them the talk you wish you’d gotten when you were fifteen. If you got that talk, you’re lucky: you know the script already. If not, then impart to them the hard lessons you learned through trial and error over decades. Finally, make sure they understand what we said above: they get to define their emotional, physical, and digital boundaries, and their word is final.