Teen dating: A panel discussion of Indian parents and experts

What do Indian parents feel about teen dating? What role parents can play in their teen’s romantic relationships? Presenting a unique ‘panel discussion’ featuring adolescent mental health experts.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Teen dating: A panel discussion of Indian parents and experts

While teen dating in India has always been frowned upon, it has gained increased visibility in the last few years. Are parents today more permissive? Are they able to walk the line between being intrusive and being open? What, according to them, is the right age for teens to start dating? We find out in this very interesting panel discussion featuring two adolescent mental health experts trained at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore.

Key legends
M: Moderator
PN: Preethi Ninan
TR: Tania Roy

Moderator (M): Let’s begin our session by introducing our experts. First up, Ms. Preethi Ninan. She is a child and adolescent mental health expert and is on her way to completing her doctorate in clinical psychology from NIMHANS, one of the biggest mental health institutes of the country. Welcome ma'am. It’s also my pleasure to introduce Dr. Tania Roy, a psychiatric social worker working in the family unit of NIMHANS. And yes, joining us with a bagful of questions and their own thoughts on the contentious subject, is a wonderful set of 6 parents. Our topic today- Would you allow your teen to date?

Parent 1: No, never!
(*everyone laughs*)
Parent 2: Teen age is to concentrate on studies. And think about career, not dating.

Parent 3 (to parent 2): If you say this to a teen, they will surely go against you. I think studies matter but friends and dating is what they get attracted to more. So if we educate them, make them aware about what a relationship entails, how to handle relationships, how to respect, respond, care for another, understand, how to take responsibility and value each other in a relationship, then why not?

Parent 4: Agree. Being in a relationship is not about dating only. If a child does not learn all the basic fundamentals of a relationship how can she/he handle the date? How can a teen handle failure in that date? We have to teach them how to have a healthy relationship with the opposite sex, we should tell them that it’s okay to feel attracted to the opposite sex but to have healthy boundaries.

Expert 1 (PN): I think it is important for parents to understand that interest in dating and establishing relationships is normal especially towards middle to late adolescence, and a blanket ban might do more harm than good. Instead, parents may need to jointly decide on an age after which dating might be considered (based on their cultural and family norms), and rules and expectations for the same. I feel that the key is emphasising even during the childhood years on a parent-child relationship based on trust and open channels of communication.

Expert 2 (TR): Absolutely! A parent cannot ‘protect’ their child forever. Therefore, letting them ‘explore safely’ with parental guidance is essential. Also, since these are natural impulses, they are bound to occur. Curbing them might expose the teen to more high risk behaviours and unsafe grounds.

Parent 1: But I feel extremely anxious in letting my child date. Especially since today there are apps and social media that enable blind dating. And you never know who they’re meeting online.

Expert 2 (TR): That’s correct. In blind dates or dating through technology, there is a greater chance to manipulate information about oneself. The teen actually doesn’t know truly who the other person is. The criteria of ‘liking a date’ is very limited to looks, or an image being conveyed only digitally. Devoid of any mechanisms to get some background information about the person, the teen can expose himself/herself to sexual exploitation or other exploitation unintentionally.

Expert 1 (PN): That’s why it is important for parents to be closely aware of what is happening in their adolescents’ lives. This might mean awareness of their activity on social media and of their friends’ circle. Parents need to know if and who their adolescent is dating, and how it began. All too often, we come across parents who believe that all is well, and are in the dark about their adolescents’ friendships, until something drastic happens and brings it to their attention.

M: Like that Grade 10 girl who flew, without her parents’ knowledge, from Bengaluru to Pune to surprise her Facebook boyfriend! It made front page news on the Times of India a few days ago.

Parent 1: That’s exactly what I am talking about too. It’s too scary!

Parent 2: What can we do to prevent such a scenario? I know this is an extreme example but none of us want our children to land up in this situation.

Expert 1 (PN): The key is that parents take care to cultivate trust and open communication in their relationship with children from childhood itself. Adolescents are going to be more open regarding their relationship risks and struggles if they know parents are approachable, will not condemn or unfairly judge them, nor lay down rules or curfews without consideration of their feelings. Statements such as “As your parent, I want the best for you and always want to be involved in your life. I would want to know and be introduced to the person you want to date. I also want you to know that you can come to me at any time if you are having difficulties.

Parent 5: But how can I lay down safety rules for my teen? How do I know if those rules are being followed?

Expert 2 (TR): Parents should openly talk about romantic relationships irrespective of whether the teen is dating or not. While growing up, when a pre-adolescent hears parents discuss relationship do’s and don’ts– a lot already gets clarified. The teen is prepared already to face a relationship in a more mature way. I believe parents must discuss physical, sexual, and emotional safety much earlier in a graded manner in the language they understand. It then, becomes a value system they grow into. Issues of consent, violence in friendships/relationships/manipulations needs to be known by both gender and rules of respectable relationships can be ingrained as early as 5 or 6 years. It’s not a sudden information overload or a task they need to now abide by.

M (to experts): I think it will help if you could discuss what rules and limits can parents talk about with their teen.

Expert 1 (PN): The basic ground rules that parents can discuss are: at what age the adolescent can begin dating; any expectations they might have regarding who the adolescent can date (for instance, acceptable age differences, dating a known person versus initiating a relationship online, etc.); parents’ expectations regarding their own involvement in their adolescent’s dating life – for instance, a need to know who their adolescent is dating and being introduced to him/her; rules regarding setting (where the date can occur), curfew, physical involvement in a relationship, and so on.
I cannot presume to lay down even broad rules – this are decisions each family must make based on their cultural and social norms. Do not, however, brush such topics under the carpet or believe that your adolescent can handle the situation on his/her own, or that you can speak about it ‘when the need arises’. Such discussions should start at early adolescent years or even earlier, and not as a knee-jerk reaction at a later point.

Parent 3: That makes sense. Having open ongoing conversations with our children from early on.

Parent 5: But how can you have these open conversations if your larger family finds them inappropriate?

Expert 2 (TR): In that case, some boundaries need to be created early on, where a parent and child can communicate things even if the other generations do not find it relevant. For this, again a good parent-child bond is must. Firstly the parents should have rituals with their child which includes only them, where they are able to connect to their child in absence of any intrusions. Secondly, the child (once older) should also be taught about topics which they can open up to parents only, but not to others. The child should be encouraged to talk freely with parent in their privacy. The parents, in their private moments with child (say during a movie time, eating out, trips or vacations), can pick up relationships as a topic in a very normal discussion and incorporate teen dating -its pros and cons as a subject. It does not need to be a ‘family discussion at meal time’ for example.

Parent 5: Yes, my child and I are very open to discussing these topics.

Parent 2: But my own spouse is not open to having these discussions.

Expert 2 (TR): I will still encourage the more willing and open parent to talk to his/her spouse and later talk to children. If none of these work out, I definitely will advise parents to attend parenting workshops, or seek help of counsellors or therapists to broach these issues in presence of an expert. It does not need to begin when things go wrong. It can be done as soon as children begin growing up.

Parent 4: But what should a parent do if something adverse does happen and the parent finds out that their child has been lying or hiding? This happened to one of my friends. Her daughter was dating this guy behind her back and one day she found some intimate chat messages on their computer- her daughter had forgotten to log out of her messenger. She was devastated.

Expert 2 (TR): If the parent comes to know of the teen’s relationship, the parent must first build trust and listen. Without jumping into advice giving, the parent should connect to the teen, validate their needs, and then talk about safety – safe sex, physical and emotional abuse etc. For example: a mother shared with me: her daughter in a fit of emotional dysregulation expressed she “feels like having sex”. Her mother calmly said “It’s natural for you to feel like having sex, but it’s not acceptable in our culture. It brings in more complications than you need in your life like pregnancy or exploitation. Sex without emotional connection also is not long lasting. Maybe, you can masturbate when you feel like this. That will be healthier”.

Parent 3: Wow…that must require guts for the parent!

Parent 4: I think it requires loads of empathy.

Parent 5: I agree with that. The more open the parents are with their children, the lesser the children tend to hide. I went out for dates… Unfortunately, my parents weren’t as open with me about boys and stuff and so I hid my relationships, crushes, etc. from them. By the way, dates don’t harm studies. I did have fun and I was a topper throughout!

Parent 6: Maybe you did have fun. I think that nowadays this dating business is more out of peer pressure. Which is doubly hard on kids, because imagine having to date just to fit in with your friends!

Expert 1 (PN): Peer pressure has a definite role to play in the fact that adolescents are beginning to date at younger ages. Since everyone around one is dating, it can lead to a normalisation of the same, and to adolescents asserting ‘If everyone else has a girlfriend/boyfriend, why can’t I?’? This may lead almost by association to the idea that “If I am not dating/not in a relationship, that must mean there’s something wrong with me”. This could lead to issues including poor self-esteem and body image issues, as well as subtly compel an adolescent to give into a partner’s demands or remain in a harmful relationship.

Parent 6: And this can be stressful for any teen!

Expert 2 (TR): Yes, dating can be stressful. Adolescents at the threshold of adult world and are just beginning to manoeuvre through the nuances of it. They are still discovering their own self-identity, needs, and emotions. In this, to accommodate another person’s needs and expectations can be overwhelming. For example, how promptly should they respond to each other’s messages, how often to meet, whether to engage in any sexual interactions etc. are all decisions the teen has to make now.

M: Not surprisingly, there is research that shows that dating at a younger age predicts future depression.

Parent 3: More than age I feel it’s the emotional maturity of the teen to deal with such relationships.

M: But how do parents assess that? What do you all think is the right age for dating to begin?

Parent 2 (with a smile): Only after the child is 18 years.

Parent 4 (laughs): You mean after they are adults?!

Expert 1 (PN): I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It is a decision that parents of each adolescent will have to take, based on factors including their cultural and social context, their attitude towards dating, and the adolescent’s maturity. That being said, my clinical experience has thrown up cases of children and adolescents dating at younger ages than ever before.

M: And ma’am what do you think is the reason for this trend?

Expert 1 (PN): Some of the possible reasons for this could be the increasing exposure to western culture and practices, the role of social media, and the normalisation of these trends as more adolescents begin to date at earlier ages.

Parent 4: So parents need to evolve with the trend. They cannot pretend to be living in a cave anymore.

Parent 3: Exactly. And as I sad earlier too, parents’ own harsh reactions can be extremely detrimental.

Expert 1 (PN): With dating becoming more or less a norm for our adolescents in their school and social contexts, parents need to respond maturely. As we discussed a while back, at younger teen years, parents may need to establish rules and expectations for dating with a certain level of monitoring, while at older years, they may need to grant more autonomy to adolescents, all the while ensuring that open lines of communication exist with their sons or daughters.

M: How can parents strike a fine balance between open communication and being intrusive?

Parent 6: By showing interest in your teen’s life but going through their private texts or emails or drawers.

Parent 5: By telling your teen that you’ll pick him up at 830pm from the movie theatre or restaurant, so that you show your support but not bad-mouthing their date, if you don’t like them.

(*everyone laughs*)

Expert 2 (TR): You can put forth your concerns but not criticism. You can also create a normal atmosphere about romantic relationships and dating through role modelling your spousal relationship, talking openly about such relationships, your views, discussing movies, current news, scenarios etc. The teen already would have an idea about your values and be able to make more congruent choices.
Even as you do this, remember…. A teen might not come back from an evening with friends and talk to you the first thing. If you expect your teen to blurt out every detail, that will not happen. However, patient waiting can make the teen open up by themselves.

M: And finally, to wrap this discussion, is group dating a good idea?

Parent 1: What is group dating?

Parent 3: It’s when teens go out in a big group, each with their dates.

Parent 4: Sounds like a good idea to me mostly because it seems safer.

Expert 1 (PN): If adolescents are allowed to start dating during early or middle adolescence, then parents might need to advocate group dates. This can mean that the adolescents are always surrounded by other peers, in a public place, and this discourages impulsive actions by adolescents. Parents must also be aware of where the group date is happening, with clear rules for the same. The constitution of the group is obviously important; the presence of responsible and trustworthy adolescents will allow for the modeling of responsible dating for others in the group.

M: As we draw this session to a close, let us reiterate that it takes a lot of conversation, being connected with your teen, and co-constructing rules and boundaries to make dating appropriate and safe for teens. I thank the experts and all the parents who took part in this interesting discussion!

In a Nutshell

  • Given the biological and emotional changes in adolescence, dating is developmentally a normative process of learning about sexuality and adult romantic relationships
  • A blanket ban on dating might expose the teen to more high risk behaviours and unsafe grounds
  • Take care to cultivate trust and open communication in your relationship with children from childhood itself
  • At younger teen years, discuss and establish rules and expectations for dating with a certain level of monitoring, while at older years, grant more autonomy to adolescents, all the while ensuring that open lines of communication exist with your teen

What you can do right away

  • Talk to your teen about consent and respect in romantic relationships
  • Establish healthy rules and boundaries for your teen by having open discussions and taking your teen’s views into consideration

About the Experts:
Preethi Anne Ninan is on her way to completing her PhD in Clinical Psychology from NIMHANS. She is currently consulting at the Bangalore Baptist Hospital.
Tania Roy has completed her PhD in Psychiatric Social Work from NIMHANS. She is currently working as a Psychiatric Social Worker in Family Psychiatry Centre of NIMHANS.

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 12 September 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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