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Helping your child navigate the dating scene

I remember when my oldest son went on his first date as a high school freshman. It was hardly the stuff of romantic legend. Since neither he nor his girlfriend could yet drive, their “date” consisted of sitting in a corner booth at Culver’s while I parked myself in a booth nearby and tried to be inconspicuous. I think the date may have ended with an awkward handshake. If only dating could remain this innocent! But as our teens get older and their relationships become more serious, what’s a parent’s role as a child dates? How much—or how little—do we get involved?

From the outset, be very clear about dating parameters. Ask where, when, and what questions. Give firm expectations about rules and curfews, and enforce consequences when rules are broken.

Meet your child’s date, and connect with his or her parents, if possible. Even if you can’t meet in person, connect via phone call or text and communicate often. It’s very important for both sets of parents to be a “team” when it comes to dating expectations and guidelines.

Have THE TALK with your child—again. Sorry, I know it will be cringe-worthy and awkward, but your child needs to learn about sex from you, not the Internet or peers. Look at what God says about purity in relationships (1 Corinthians 6:18-20), and read together Galatians 2:20 to remind your teen that Christ lives in him. Discuss the very real consequences of a sexual relationship outside of marriage—everything from STDs to pregnancy to emotional and spiritual impacts.

Be your child’s “brain.” It’s a scientific fact that the brain isn’t fully wired until about age 25. So . . . the developing teen brain + raging hormones = the opportunity for some very poor choices. Parents can help be their child’s surrogate brain during the teen years. Although teens have to learn to make their own choices and understand the consequences of their actions, we can help guide them through the dating minefield.

Model healthy and loving male/female relationships in your home. Dads, cherish your wife in front of your daughters. Moms, hold your sons accountable by teaching them to respect you and respect women. Also talk about what is and is not acceptable in a dating relationship. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are NEVER OK. If your child is uncomfortable or injured in a relationship, teach him to speak up.

Be realistic about your teen’s dating journey. Are you married to the first person you dated? It happens, but it’s not likely. Keep in mind that dating for our teens is about exploring who they are and what they are looking for in a future spouse. Don’t push too hard or encourage your child’s dating relationship to be more serious than it should, yet don’t be so hands-off that you are unaware of what is happening.

Pray continually. I recently told a friend, “I will pray for you. It’s the least I can do.” She gently corrected me, “No, it’s the most you can do.” She’s right. We forget how powerful and effective prayer is. Bring your child’s dating relationship to God in prayer. Ask him to help your child remain pure, make wise choices, and stay safe. Also pray for a God-fearing spouse for your child someday, if they choose to marry. Finally, pray for patience and understanding and to be able to lovingly keep the lines of communication open with your teen as he navigates the world of dating.

Ann Jahns and her husband, Thad, have three sons and a recently emptied nest.

One dad’s guide to surviving the dating years

I’m a parent of 2 boys and 2 girls ages 15 to 22. I have a front row seat to view the corn maze called courting. I admit to thoughts of electronic surveillance, homing devices, and background checks. Making it more complicated is that the way my kids date is as unique as they are. They open up to my wife and me in different ways and to varying degrees.

Along the way, I have learned a few things:

  • First crushes are an innocent way of saying, “I like you and want to spend time with you.” Young teens are practicing their dating legs. They are learning social skills. The early years are building the skills they need for future and more serious relationships.
  • You can never prevent them from getting hurt. Sometimes a parent sees and offers caution such as, “Does the person to whom you’re giving your heart make you a better person or bring you down? Liking someone is one thing, but if he makes you feel worse about yourself, ditch him. I don’t care how good-looking he is.” Yet they still get hurt . . . and your heart breaks when your child’s heart breaks.
  • Take their feelings seriously. I never joke or make light of their feelings. I may view it as puppy love. But when seen through the lens of a teenager, those feelings of the moment are under a magnifying glass. They are huge and all-consuming. Validate that their feelings are real . . . and realize that they may change at any moment.

I’m still learning:

  • To know when to quit talking so I can be a better listener. A good listener will be able to repeat everything back. A deep listener internalizes it, mulls it around, and empathizes with a child. A note of caution—being a listener doesn’t qualify you as their “relationship fixer.” Parents can’t fix relationships. I may want to offer advice on every conversation point. But more important than getting my point across is allowing them to share. Which means your tongue may bleed from biting it.
  • Not to be afraid to ask the hard questions: “Does your boyfriend drink?” “Are you getting in the car with him?” “Will there be parents supervising that party?”

Sometimes, a boyfriend/girlfriend can be controlling, like when you see a child with ONLY this one person and no longer with his friends. But differentiate between a red flag and a child who is just private. There’s a difference between hiding things and not wanting to talk about things.

Finally, I believe that the best way to model dating for your children is to treat your spouse well. It’s like the map that helps them through that corn maze. . . .

Donn Dobberstein and his wife, Beth, have four children ranging in age from 15 to 22.

What’s a parent’s role in dating?

Ah, the halcyon days of dating! The excitement, the romance, the mystery! Will he call? Does she like me? But now, you are the parent, and the word “dating” seems more worrisome than wonderful. What is your role as a parent in Christian courtship?

Pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17): God would have us pray about everything. Certainly early and often prayers for our child and his or her future spouse and all things dating fall under this category.

Teach (Proverbs 22:6): Godly conversations about the blessings of dating, marriage, and sex should also start early and continue age appropriately as your child matures. Not entirely comfortable with these conversations? Christian books to the rescue! Always remind your child that he or she is a special and loved child of God—single, dating, or married.

Model (1 Corinthians 13): Actions speak louder than words! Pray that God gives you the strength to make your marriage a Christian model of sacrificial love. Show your child that your marriage is a priority and a blessing. Fathers, show respect to your wives and daughters. Mothers, encourage your husbands and sons in their Christian roles.

Advise (Psalm 119:105): As dating age approaches (in our family rules, that’s approximately age 16, because that seemed like a good age, and it’s no fun to have your parents drive you on dates), look for moments like car rides or walking the dog that are good talking and listening times. You can regale them with stories of your own courtship and marriage but also remind them that while dating can be fun, the ultimate purpose is to look for a husband or wife, and that is serious business. Most importantly, continue to point them to God’s Word. How about a Saturday coffee outing that includes a Bible study with your child, looking at passages on God’s love for us, our love for God and others, friendship, marriage, God’s timing, temptation, true beauty, forgiveness, what to look for in a marriage partner, how to handle a break up?

Host (1 Peter 4:8,9): As dating age approaches, plan gatherings for your child’s class—boys and girls—at your home. Encourage your son or daughter to have their boyfriend or girlfriend over for game nights, baking, movies, and devotions. We call this “family dating.” It’s a cheap date, but it’s also a way for the boyfriend/girlfriend to get to know you, the other siblings, the dog (a true test!), and the Christian values your family holds dear.

Dating. Ever since God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” in Genesis 2:18, men and women have been seeking the perfect partner. Welcome to this exciting/scary/exhilarating/wonderful phase of parenting! God’s blessings as you pray, teach, model, advise, and host your dating child of God, relying on God’s good guidance and timing.

Ann Ponath and her husband, David, have four kids ranging in age from 23 to 14.

Building a strong, God-pleasing marriage

When the issue of divorce arises in another family, a child or teenager may wonder if they should be concerned about their own parents getting a divorce. This can present an opportunity for parents to talk with their children and adolescents in age-appropriate ways about steps that Dad and Mom are taking to strengthen their marriage in an effort to avoid divorce.

This can be a great time to talk about—and demonstrate—the importance of:

  • Nurturing a marriage with things like date nights, cards, flowers, hugs and kisses on the cheek, plus kind acts. Your children will observe your actions, which can help to calm any anxiety on their part. You will be providing a beneficial template for their own future marriages.
  • Communicating well, which starts with actively listening to the other spouse’s message without prejudging it, then using appropriate eye contact, body language, and tone of voice to respond in a respect-ful manner. These actions will reassure your children of your love and care for their other parent and give them a great example to follow in their lives.
  • Resolving conflicts positively using strategies like fair fighting, compromise, negotiation, and maybe even sacrifice. Teach children that conflict is part of life and part of marriage and that it can be managed well to enhance relationships.
  • Apologizing and making amends if mistakes are made. How powerful for a young person to see a parent take responsibility and repent for a sinful choice, followed by forgiveness and reconciliation. This is an opportunity for children to see the forgiveness we learn from Jesus in action.
  • Celebrating anniversaries, as these are a blessing from God. Give thanks to him for the gift of marriage by marking anniversaries with some fun tradition or meaningful gift.
  • Worshiping together. We are surrounded by temptations to turn away from God’s design for marriage. Regularly hearing of God’s love in Christ and receiving Holy Communion gives us the strength to live Christian lives.
  • Teaching children and teens about God’s design for marriage. Emphasize that Dad is to be the loving head of the household and Mom is to be his respectful supporter. Talk about how Christians should be equally yoked with a Christian spouse. Reinforce that God’s plan is for marriage to be between one man and one woman.

For teens, parents may also want to broach the topic of sexual fidelity, noting that this too is a gift from God designed to enhance the intimacy between husband and wife. Use this opportunity to reinforce that sex outside of marriage is not part of God’s good plans for us and such sin only leads to heartache.

This may also be a time to reevaluate your marriage. How well are you doing the things listed above? What might you change or improve to strengthen your marriage? What might you want to request of your spouse?

Let’s teach our kids about having strong, God-pleasing marriages through our words and actions grounded in his holy Word. Remember that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child is to love the other parent as God loves them.

Sheryl Cowling is a licensed clinical social worker who is also board certified as a professional Christian counselor and expert in traumatic stress. She provides counseling services at Christian Family Counseling, a ministry of WLCFS—Christian Family Solutions.