As tweens become teens and Facebook links replace friendship bracelets, dating ensues, leaving many parents wondering, what’s the best age for teens to begin coupling up?
The answer depends on a variety of factors, including personality and maturity level. It’s obvious a lot has changed among teens in recent years. For one, group dating is more popular than ever (not to be confused with double dating, this is when girls and boys hang out en masse, usually at a mall or a restaurant). As a result, fewer boys are actually asking girls out on one-on-one dates. All but gone are the days when an invite to a movie came by way of a phone call or a shy, in-person meeting. These days girls and boys are more likely to ask each other out via text or direct messages on social media. But while the culture of teen dating has evolved, has the age at which it starts changed, and when exactly is the best time?
What the research says
On average, kids begin group dating at 12-and-a-half for girls and 13-and-a-half for boys, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. By the time they hit 15, most begin pairing up.
There’s a stark difference between early daters and those who wait until they’re old enough for a learner’s permit. Boys and girls who start dating between the ages of 11-and-a-half and 13 may experience more academic and behavioral problems than their peers, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescence. Their lack of maturity leaves them ill-prepared to handle some of the common emotions and issues that couples face, and without many peers going through similar experiences, they’re left to figure things out for themselves. Researchers also cited an increase in the risk of unsafe sex, alcohol use, and more, according to the Wall Street Journal. The majority of teens studied didn’t begin dating until about age 13, and the so-called late bloomers were around 15. Neither of these latter groups appeared to experience any major social or emotional difficulties.
It’s worth noting that plenty of teens aren’t just dating, they’re already having sex: A CDC study found that about 43 percent of teenage girls and 42 percent of teenage boys had had sexual intercourse at least once.
What the experts say
Most recommend 15 and 16 as the ideal ages to begin dating. For Ron Eagar, a pediatrician at Denver Health Medical Center, the magic number is 16. “There’s an enormous difference between a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old and a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old in terms of life experience,” he told HealthyChildren.org, the website for the AAP.
“Sixteen — and even a bit older — is a good age for dating, provided that the teen is mature,” Leslie Beth Wish, a psychologist and clinical social worker, told SheKnows. “Maturity can be measured by willingness to participate sufficiently in household chores, treating others with respect, getting good grades, and managing emotions.’”
The important thing is not to make children feel bad about their feelings, even if you think they’re too young to have them. “Parents should never minimize or ridicule a first love,” Dr. George Comerci, a Tucson pediatrician, told HealthyChildren.org. “It is a very important relationship to teenagers, and it’s important for another reason, in that it is their first intimate relationship with someone outside their family.”
Some experts warn against waiting too long to allow kids to date. Donna Thomas-Rodgers, PhD, suggests allowing teens to go to group dances and supervised events at 14, on group dates at 15, and on individual dates at 16. “When teens start at 15 years old with actual group dating, you can support the child’s dating choices and supervise their decisions,” Thomas-Rodgers told SheKnows.
What the parents say
“I think it would depend on the maturity level. I was raised that a girl does not go out with a boy unless she has a chaperone. Being the sneaky teenager that I was, I paid my brother to scram!” — Erica Diaz, Chino, California.
“Forget about it. You will have absolutely no control over the situation.” — Stephanie Wood, New York City.
“Seventeen because at that age they’re old enough to make their decisions and transitioning from junior to senior high.” — Maritz S., Miami, Florida.
“Sixteen. I’m not driving you on a date.” — Carina H. Wytiaz, Provo, Utah.
“Twenty-five.” — Robert Hearn, Orlando, Florida.
The bottom line
It’s perfectly natural to wonder if your child is ready to begin dating. After all, it probably seems like just yesterday you were buying action figures and setting up tea parties. No one knows your child better than you, so consider his or her maturity level, and perhaps ask the opinions of parents of teens whom you respect. So long as kids’ grades aren’t suffering and nothing else is falling by the wayside, let them progress from friendships to dating at their own pace. And whatever you do, don’t overthink it. The vast majority of first loves never make it past high school. Just keep an eye on your teens, and let them know they can come to you if they need you.